The NCAA may finally be “getting what it deserves,” said Andrew Cline in USA Today. College sports have grown into a billion-dollar industry, but the NCAA and its member colleges have very deliberately set up rules ensuring that they don’t have to share a penny of those revenues with their “student-athletes.” That exploitative relationship may soon end. In a ruling that “could—and should—change college athletics forever” if it survives appeals, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that the members of the Northwestern University football team are employees who have the right to form a union and bargain for a better deal. The NLRB found that players in the major programs are “athletes first, students second,” said Jordan Weissmann in Slate.com. They spend up to 60 hours a week in arduous practice and workouts; in return, those with scholarships get food, lodging, and tuition. They “work for pay,” in other words, and are thus entitled to the same protections as other workers, including the right to unionize.
A college is not a farm field, said Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post, and college athletes are hardly exploited crop-pickers. “They are highly privileged scholarship winners who get a lot of valuable stuff for free,” including world-class medical care and training, and the chance “to develop emotionally, intellectually, and physically” at a fine university they might not otherwise attend. The full cost of tuition, room, and board at Northwestern, for example, is $63,000 a year—or $252,000 for four years. If players are employees, is that really a poor rate of exchange for playing football or basketball? Yes, “there are injustices” in how the NCAA treats players, but unionizing and paying them would open “a Pandora’s box.”
“Man, oh man’’—just think of the “unintended or unimagined consequences,” said Gordon Monson in The Salt Lake Tribune. If free tuition becomes a form of income, who’s going to pay the tax on it? Could an entire team decide to sell its services to a better-paying college? And should lacrosse players and women athletes who do not draw income-producing audiences get the same salaries as star football quarterbacks? Now, it’s not fair that some college coaches get paid $5 million a year off the labor of their unpaid players, or that colleges can profit off autographed photos of their athletes while the athletes cannot. But if the NLRB and courts ultimately rule that players are employees, it may take a decade to sort out the resulting legal chaos.
The NCAA can avert the worst-case scenarios, said BloombergView.com in an editorial, but only if it takes this ruling as “a wake-up call.” It’s time to start treating the players fairly. The NLRB pointed out that colleges can withdraw athletic scholarships at any time—thus giving them total leverage over players, who get booted from school if they’re injured or disappoint the coach. So the NCAA should immediately make all scholarships guaranteed for four years. Another idea would be to give football and basketball players a share of the revenue their teams generate, and keep it in a trust fund until they graduate, said John Feinstein in The Washington Post. But the financial issues are really secondary. This case is about reforming a system in which players are treated like serfs, with their lives utterly controlled by dictatorial coaches who, at Northwestern, told the quarterback his classwork was getting in the way of football. The Northwestern players aren’t demanding to be paid, much as they may deserve it. They’re simply “demanding a voice.”