Unionizing Collegiate Sports

The costs of attending college have increased up to 77%  in some states, and this figure is just from within the last five years. More than ever, students are struggling to finance their secondary education. For some this can take the form participation in a collegiate sport in exchange for a scholarship to attend the institution. Over the past month the football players at Northwestern University have been advocating for the creation of a union for the collegiate athletes.  This union would allow for the players to bargain for certain benefits and services, such as a stipend, medical coverage for former players suffering from sports-related injuries, concussion specialists who are present at the football games, and in general, to let the voices of the student-athletes to be heard.

One of the main arguments for unionizing collegiate athletes is their claim that participation on the football team is equivalent to a full-time job, and they should be compensated accordingly. Some players report that football-related activities make up 40-60 hours of their week, and that they have even been steered away from more rigorous fields of study in order to be fully committed to football’s schedule, is in Kain Colter’s case. Others argue that they help generate millions of dollars for the universities and should receive a cut of the profits. (A similar issue led to a lawsuit a few years ago when the NCAA banned former players from receiving pay for the use of their character or “likeness” in video games).

Many people have voiced their disagreements with giving student-athletes a salary to compensate them for their contributions to the institution. Some emphasize that paying athletes would undermine the education that Northwestern, and all other colleges, are committed to. Student-athletes are students, not employees. Leaders at Northwestern have been very supportive of their players’ efforts, but do not necessarily agree with the goal of unionizing. Northwestern has made clear that their student-athletes are not employees. Additionally, salary compensation for the players would conflict with the stipulations of Title IX, to which the university must adhere. If a college or university were to pay the football players they would then be required to compensate the female athletes of the college equally. This poses a problem because, typically, collegiate football and men’s basketball makes a lot of money for the institution, but the rest of the sports, including all of women’s sports, tend to lose money.

One sports-law professor has raised an interesting counter-point to a student-athlete union demanding a salary, saying that doing so would challenge the amateur status of collegiate sports. Whereas this professor’s concern for the shift away from amateurism is probably related more closely to the players themselves and collegiate athletics’ relation to professional sports, the loss of amateurism is also detrimental to the education institutions. In “Sport and Social Class”, Bourdieu says that a feature of elite sports and of amateur sports is the element of disinterestedness and fair play, marked by the “will to win within the rules” (824). If the collegiate athletes received a salary for playing, could this be signify that the players have not distanced themselves enough from the game? He also states that schools are places where activities and practices with a social function are converted into “bodily exercises, activities which are an end in themselves, a sort of physical art or art’s sake, governed by specific rules…” (823). When sports become the focus for character building, according to Bourdieu, it is implied that academic education becomes secondary to sporting prowess. 

I think we can see this happening in Kain Colter’s case very clearly. Regardless of the Truth, he claims that his intentions of becoming an orthopedic surgeon were not supported and he was advised to take “easier” courses. He was obviously valued for his athletic abilities, and leaders of the football program disregarded his academic goals. Valuing sporting education over academic education imposes a new role onto previously existing academic institutions. While sports have played a prominent role in universities for years—American football was created in the universities, after all—I think what we’re beginning to see is a shift in values in these institutions. Colleges are no longer just for continuing academic education. They are also stepping-stones for those athletes who are bound for the professional leagues; they are the most prominent feeder programs for the NBA and the NFL, and we can see this in the hyper-commodification of college sports.

However, I do believe that educational institutions have a responsibility to remain committed to education. With that said, I support Northwestern’s stance on the position. The student-athletes should receive scholarships, academic encouragement, and full medical coverage for sport-related injuries. Other parties have suggested that scholarships be extended to cover the costs associated with attending college that aren’t covered by the scholarships, like transportation and school supplies; extending the financial benefits would close the gap in the cost of attendance. Providing non-salary based compensation also keeps college sports amateur, at least according to the sports-law professor.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are expected to rule whether the student-athletes are employees of the university by the end of the month, which will then determine the course of the players’ efforts to unionize.

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