Unionizing College Sports

It’s kind of laughable. Maybe like a joke. Or funny as in peculiar or just peculiar. Or a joke as in it isn’t going to happen. Or like who cares? Or maybe all of the above. Except that it is going to be played out in National Labor Relations Board hearings and maybe the courts. In other words, it’s going to cost taxpayers and Northwestern University, a private school, a ton of money.

The “it” is the decision by the regional director of the NLRB that scholarship football players are employes of the University and therefore entitled to collectively bargain through a union. Right now it only applies to Northwestern, but theoretically could apply everywhere in the future. Not so far-fetched when you remember that professional athletes once were unrepresented. By the way, this was an organizing effort through a college football player working with the United Steelworkers Union.

The heart of the pro-union argument (other than politics) is that the football players put in a 40-50 hour week during the five month football season and are under the total control of the University. For that they get a scholarship worth about $60,000 a year (tuition, room, board not to mention travel, etc. They have to also keep up their academic work, supposedly the point of it all). The school makes millions on TV contracts and other sponsorships. So, they are employes and some contend they should be given additional cash for their work.

Of course, scholarships go for more than football: women’s field hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, track, women’s basketball, softball, golf. I don’t know if the opinion specified qualifying terms – hours put in, monetary return to the school, extent of the scholarship, and monetary value to the school – but it would be logical that it extends to all sports and to all conditions. Every scholarship implies employment so taxes should be withheld, overtime hour regulations observed (interesting to see how travel time is handled), and so forth.

Perhaps, too, instead of first, second, third string players, some will get paid more or less than others, or not at all. There’s no question that college sports, at least at the larger schools, is a big business with the big sports subsidizing smaller sports. Even smaller, less professional sports oriented schools, have big demands on the players. Not everyone graduates. Northwestern argues they graduate 85 percent, but others are in the 40 percent range, and schools like North Carolina have been accused of graduating illiterate players even after providing special easy-to-pass classes. What is the point of sports programs anyway? The whole picture is a bit of a mess.

Scholarships are big deals. Ask any parent who has to put up money for a child’s education. It explains the push for grade inflation as well as the frantic antics of parents of high school athletes. Maybe, if schools start to drop scholarship programs, all that will go away. Maybe some schools would like to drop their athletic scholarship programs. Here’s the ideal opportunity.

However, what about academic scholarships? Those students work hard. Mental work is as tough as physical work, if not tougher. Of course, there aren’t any TV contracts. But, is that the issue? Maybe the real issue is that you should be paid to go to school. Might work right down to the elementary level. Everyone is an employe. Then, if the work isn’t done, he or she could be fired. Might be a motivator all around: parents, students, teachers, administrators.

As I wrote, it’s all very funny.

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