On Dec 13th, the National Collegiate Athletic Association said in a court filing that the protection of college athletes isn’t its legal responsibility. Athletes at Northwestern University had applied to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for permission to join the United Steelworkers union to gain collective bargaining rights, through the National College Players Association. “We figured athletes were lucky because they’re getting an education,” said United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard “But then we looked into it and realized it’s a myth. Many don’t get a true education and their scholarships aren’t guaranteed.”
What most people seem to have missed is that this has more than one precedent:
Universities have always encouraged students with athletic prowess to play amateur sports and provided them with aid in the form of tuition, room, board and books, and payment of other fees charged by the university. The universities and the NCAA earn million dollar fees in the form of television rights, sponsorships, ticket sales, merchandise purchases, championship payouts and even video games. In addition, universities with strong athletic programs enjoy high levels of alumni donations, often slotted for new stadiums and other athletic programs. College athletics is estimated to be a $16 billion industry – far in excess of the expenditures on athletic scholarships or programs. The universities do not compensate an injured athlete, often take away scholarships from injured athletes and do not provide injury care to them once they graduate or leave the school. Most student-athletes end up with no compensation for sports-related injuries.
The NCAA has clearly stated that a student-athlete cannot be considered an employee of the institution where he/she is enrolled. They are considered ‘volunteers’ who do get some benefits like scholarships and living expenses. But there is little doubt that the relationship and its structure bring up a lot of questions:
If the NLRB rules that student athletes are university employees, we can expect those at Northwestern University to quickly unionize, and others will follow. The university accepted that the health and injury compensation issues raised by the students were genuine and need to be resolved. The fact that they are not yet resolved argues strongly in favor of winning collective bargaining rights for these student-athletes. The petition to NLRB secured more than the 30% signatures required from the team. Actually, an overwhelming majority signed the request.
The stakes are high and the NCAA cannot be expected to relinquish its position or accept a change in the status quo easily. When challenged by players like Ed O’Bannon who questioned the right of the NCAA and EA to use their images in video games, EA offered $40 million in compensation. The NCAA, however, has chosen to continue fighting the issue in the courts. After all, having your team of players unionize and earn the right to go on strike – after all the tickets and television rights have been sold – is a calamity which no one would want to contemplate or face!
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