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No more free throws

Allowing student athletes to form labor unions will encourage universities to divorce athletic priorities from academic ones

Football players at Northwestern University have submitted a formal request to the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board in an attempt to be recognized as employees and form a labor union. This action has been spurred and organized mostly by Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, founder of the National College Players Association. Huma said that the players’ primary goal is to have the power to negotiate with the NCAA on issues paramount “to their physical and academic well-being.” He said that the players are not seeking payment.

Given that our lead editorial on Wednesday called for universities to step up to the plate in addressing issues of their athletes’ literary debilities, it would be hypocritical to say that the players’ concerns are unfounded. Indeed, we have seen ample evidence that college athletes are treated unfairly, but to declare athletes employees and give them the same collective bargaining power of a labor union is not the solution to the problem.

The NCAA released a statement in response to the players’ request, saying that student athletes cannot unionize because they do not fit the definition of employees under the National Labor Relations Act. Cornell professor of industrial and labor relations Ronald G. Ehrenberg, quoted in The Chronicle, agrees, expressing serious doubts that the players’ request would be granted.

The athletes’ plans are well-intentioned. Kain Colter said at a news conference on Tuesday that he and his teammates find the benefits the NCAA offers them insufficient, though they are satisfied with the way Northwestern has treated them. However, to grant this request would set a precedent under which players at other schools could unionize and force their universities to engage in collective bargaining with them. Academic inadequacies were cited as a concern by the Northwestern football players, but unionization will likely not solve problems like those highlighted in our last editorial — lack of academic resources available to athletes and de-prioritization of athlete education.

For football and basketball players to be treated primarily as workers opens the door to neglecting academics altogether, especially if the athletes were to use this power to demand salaries. Money that would go towards paying the players would likely not go towards educating them. And education, as we have said, should take priority over athletics in a university.

Given what we already know about incidents of athletes in revenue sports receiving unauthorized gifts, getting improper academic assistance and even being enrolled in fake classes, it seems as though some universities are diverting from purely an academic mission to a duel academic and athletic mission. And the above occurrences indicate that the former may be sacrificed in order to advance the latter. This is a trend which cannot continue.

To give athletes status as employees is to encourage this schism. What will stop universities from completely divorcing the relationship between academics and athletics, and simply hiring players for their revenue teams without requiring them to enroll as students? Such a change would disadvantage talented football and basketball players who are equally as motivated to get an education as they are to play a sport. If a university has the choice of paying a salary to a player not enrolled in courses, or giving a scholarship to a student athlete, the former is cheaper, and there is great motivation to choose the cheaper option.

Schools that choose to shift their priorities away from academics will have a greatly unfair advantage over schools that uphold education as their first priority. Imagine a team full of players who take no classes and devote all their time to football against a team of players who split their time between practice and coursework. The discouraging losses would destroy student athletes’ intrinsic motivation.

Students do not come to college just to play. They come here to learn. Colleges must treat athletes as students first and players second, and unionization would disrupt that priority. To be sure, we need to address these issues in some way, but employee status is likely to create more problems than it would solve. As the Northwestern players say, the balance of power must be corrected, but the balance of priority must also be maintained. When someone proposes a solution that accomplishes both those tasks, we will surely stand behind it.


Published January 30, 2014 in Opinion

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