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Don’t Close Your Eyes, Unionize

From ‘student-athletes’ to ‘worker-athletes’?

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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In January of this year it was at Northwestern that Kain Colter, the school’s graduating quarterback, came out on behalf of college athletes’ unionizing. Colter’s notion was that college athletes are employees, and as such deserve the rights of employees, health insurance notable among them, since college football is a dangerous sport. Northwestern University’s vice president for athletics, a man named Jim Phillips, responded with a predictable barrage of clichés, congratulating Colter and those of his fellow team members who signed a petition to unionize. “We love and are proud of our students,” his press release read. “Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.” Phillips went on to say that “Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees, and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.” Note, please, “student-athletes,” a phrase with a truth-quotient somewhere near zero.

The response of the NCAA officials also leaned heavily on student-athletes. “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. [My italics, flashing neon not being available.] Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize. Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.”

The NCAA’s confidence was misplaced, and the NLRB found that the college athletes do have the right to organize. The decision appears to have been based in good part on the obvious fact that they, the athletes, are in school strictly because of their athletic ability. As Peter Sung Ohr, a regional director of the NLRB, put it: “The record makes clear that the employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school. .  .  . No examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend to their studies.”

Neither Northwestern nor the Big Ten nor the NCAA accepted the decision, and all plan to appeal it. To what college athlete unionization, if finally cleared of all legal hurdles, is likely to lead is unclear. Medical protection is high on the list of the athletes’ demands. Being allowed to receive money for endorsements is another agenda item. Practice hours is another possible matter of concern. Will college athletes be allowed to strike, just before, say, bowl games or the NCAA basketball tournament? Anything could happen.

As someone who invests no strong belief in the goodness of labor unions, or in the union movement, whose great period of idealism has been over for more than half a century, I find myself welcoming the attempt of college athletes to unionize. Doing so at least injects a note of reality into the deep fraudulence that has been campus athletics. Employees is what college athletes are, and to pretend that they are otherwise—that they are student-athletes or, as I used occasionally to hear Northwestern’s football team described, scholar-athletes—is a lame joke. One cannot predict for a certainty whether the appeals of the NLRB decision will be heeded or not. But my best guess is that the outlook for the future is for unionized halfbacks to be crashing into the secondary and power forwards with the union label to be slam dunking during the Final Four. Dink Stover of Yale, I daresay, will be spinning in his grave.

Joseph Epstein, a frequent contributor, is the author, most recently, of A Literary Education and Other Essays.

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