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Thursday, March 27, 2014 11:43 am

Option play

Good news. The Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board recently decided  that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and thus can unionize if they choose. The ruling noted that the amount of a student’s time he is expected to devote to the game, and the fact that his scholarship is tied directly to his performance on the field, make him an employee in all but name.


NU rejects that definition, natch, and it is unclear whether the full NLRB will go along. Opponents of unionization insist that giving college athletes employee status will hurt college sports. In fact, what it will hurt is colleges’ ability to exploit its menageries of performing seals.


Last summer I griped about the ways that the big universities rip off their “student-athletes.” (See “Throwing in the towel.”) In that piece I quoted NU president emeritus Henry Bienen, who said, “Giving up on the idea of student-athletes at universities would be throwing in the towel.”


No, giving up on the idea of student-athletes at universities would be facing some ugly realities like grown-ups. NCAA President Mark Emmert replied that any sort of pay-for-play model would be the death of college athletics. “Then they are subcontractors. Why would you even want them to be students? Why would you care about their graduation rates? Why would you care about their behavior?”

I know why you care, Mr. Emmert – to preserve the façade of amateurism on which the economics of your enterprise depends. But why should fans care? The only thing that matters to us is performance on the field. To those who fret that fans and alumni will not root for a semi-pro team just because it wears the colors of their beloved alma mater, I say, they do now. 


It’s impossible to imagine that State of Illinois regulators would countenance fair treatment for players at the big state schools, whose exploitation is more egregious than Northwestern’s. But who knows, argues Ed Kilgore.


It’s pretty clear the balance of power between “student-athletes” and the big business they support is shifting. There could even be a bit of an inversion of the usual “race to the bottom” that has contributed so much to the erosion of working conditions and bargaining rights around the country. The University of Alabama isn’t going to have unionized football players any time soon, if ever. But if Nick Saban decides benefits provided by, say, Notre Dame or Southern Cal might cost him a single five-star recruit, how long will it take him to insist that Bama meet the competition? Not long, I would guess.


Bravo to Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, who brought the matter before the board, and the public. For more, see this
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