NCAA Athlete Unions: Will This Change Everything in College Sports?

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In what could potentially become a momentous event for college athletes everywhere, last week, a handful of football players at Northwestern University, led by quarterback Kain Colter, initiated a process that would unionize collegiate athletes. Following the lead of Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, the Northwestern players submitted the necessary paperwork to Chicago’s regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

A major factor that went into the hopes of forming a collegiate athletes union stems from the enormous profits the universities make from the teams these athletes play for. In an article published on Business Insider earlier this month, the publication looked at the 25 National Collegiate Athletic Association football teams that make the most money. The most profitable teams — the University of Michigan and the University of Texas — checked in with a combined $189.5 million in revenue for just the football programs. This money does help pay for travel and other costs of running big-time college athletic departments, but needless to say, the players believe that a more sufficient piece of the pie should be included for them.

The NCAA’s argument is simple: The players receive compensation in the form of scholarships and an education. While this is true, the players see themselves as more than just student-athletes. If college athletes are allowed to form a union, they will then be granted collective bargaining rights. This would mean that just as the Major League Baseball Players Association or the National Hockey League Players’ Association have a voice in their respective leagues, college athletes would have a say in their futures.

Though the Northwestern football players’ actions are a big first step toward changing the current landscape of college athletics, there are still various, legitimate obstacles that stand in the way. First, the formation of a group of individuals into a union is a long legal process. It could be many years before a decision is made, and there has to be sufficient legal precedent for it to occur. The latter will potentially be where the NCAA players come up short.

In an article in Forbes published past week, the question of whether student-athletes are employees was raised. This will likely be the deciding factor in the National Labor Board’s decision. Only employees are given the right to unionize, and presently, student-athletes aren’t even remotely considered employees in the sense that they believe to be so. The bigger issue here isn’t so much that the student-athletes want the ability to be paid a salary like professional athletes — they want to be heard by the NCAA and involved in the decision-making process. With all the revenue these NCAA schools ultimately make from the athletes’ skills and performances, the players believe they should be given more in terms of scholarship assurances and other support after their college careers finish.

“It’s become clear that relying on NCAA policymakers won’t work, that they are never going to protect college athletes, and you can see that with their actions over the past decade,” Huma said in an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” last week. The actions taken by the Northwestern players were a culmination of decades’ worth of disagreements between how and if players should be compensated besides with scholarships.

This dispute originates with the NCAA and the power the organization wields. On the home page of the NCAA’s health and safety section, it reads: “The NCAA was founded in 1906 to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitive athletic practices of the time. Today, student-athlete health, safety and well-being remain among our top priorities.” According to athletes at Northwestern, the NCAA no longer fulfills the principles on which it was founded. Instead of “protecting the exploitive practices,” the athletes see the NCAA as exploiting their abilities for millions of dollars of revenue every year.

Just how the Northwestern players’ ability to unionize will ultimately result in whether they can be viewed as “employees”; it’s likely the universities and the NCAA will stand by their term of “student-athletes.” And while the NCAA polices improper benefits (see: Johnny Manziel), the students believe that it’s really the NCAA that needs to be policed — and a union would do that.

As this situation unfolds in the coming weeks or years, it will be decidedly focused on semantics, whether collegiate-athletes are “student-athletes” or “employees.” That distinction will be pivotal. It has been a clear line since 1953, when the NCAA established the term “student-athlete” and later established the idea of scholarships, which all but eliminated the possibility of calling them employees.

The Northwestern football players’ petition to unionize also comes with some exceptions. For example, only players who are on scholarship would be included in the union, since these players are currently being compensated for their play. Support has also come from more than just fellow NCAA football players: The National Football League Players Association already announced that it’ll back the student-athletes in their attempt to unionize, which could bode well for the players. However, it will ultimately be decided by the legal system and if there is any legal precedence for such unionization.