By Jenny Kazan-Mills, SPHR
The number of unionized employees in the United States has steadily declined since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. Unions were initially formed to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions on behalf of employees. Most of us are familiar with auto workers, manufacturing employees and even public sector employees as unionized employees.
But really – college football players…most of whom receive lucrative scholarships to attend top tier colleges? Late January, Northwestern players filed with the National Labor Relations Board to organize. It has been reported that a catalyst for unionization came when the NCAA did not take any responsibility for the concussion issue, or even acknowledge that a concussion issue exists. The NCAA is the umbrella organization which regulates college sports in terms of scholarships, hours of practice, sport rules, playoffs, etc. It is no surprise that unions support the athletes’ position to organize while the NCAA does not.
The San Diego Union Tribune reported on February 19th that the Northwestern quarterback, Kain Colter, testified in a hearing that he was essentially paid to play football by receiving a scholarship. He argued that playing football is like a job, and that there is an expectation that the number one priority for players is athletics and not academics. He cited long hours, jam-packed schedules and difficult work as reasons to consider allowing players to organize. So the primary question is whether players are considered “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act. If so, the players could be allowed to organize.
What about the fans? How would allowing college football players to organize affect those who enjoy college sports? Who would college football players organize with – each college or the NCAA? The NCAA is already a cumbersome enterprise controlling many factors in all of college sports. Adding unionization (bargaining process), which would likely include all athletes not just football players, to an already layered entity is likely to drive ticket prices up and increase college tuition costs. So those without scholarships would likely help subsidize college athletics, even more. Additionally, would college athletes be allowed to go “on strike” and file unfair labor practice claims? Likely yes, as represented employees and unions have this right. NCAA argues that student athletes are not employees and that participation in college sports is voluntary.
Of course the primary driver in this argument is money. The NCAA makes a lot of money off the players and the players want a part of it. College athletics is a billion dollar industry. So if you are a parent, be sure that your sons and daughters can play a sport or two because the structure of college sports is likely to change in the near future!