When 85 scholarship football players at Northwestern University cast an historic vote this spring, they potentially drew up the play for unions in college sports.
“The basic idea is the players want to have a seat at the table,” said sports historian Charles P. Korr, an expert on players’ unions.
The historic vote came on April 25 on whether to approve the new College Athletes Players Association. The National Labor Relations Board regional office in Chicago recognized the players as employees of the university. This gave them the authority to form a union. But Northwestern still insists the players are simply students with scholarships. The university is appealing the labor board’s ruling.
The key issue in dispute are whether players are in fact students first and athletes second, as Northwestern suggests, or whether they are employees compensated through scholarships. In the National Labor Relations Board ruling, Chicago regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that the time dedicated to athletics clearly implies the players are employees.
“The players continue to devote 40 to 50 hours per week to their football duties all the way through to the end of the season, which could last until early January,” said Ohr.
Ohr also said that the structure within the school places a player’s academic priorities below his athletic priorities. Some scholarship players, he said, “are sometimes unable to take courses in a certain academic quarters due to conflicts with scheduled practices. The players must also sometimes miss classes due to conflicts with travel to football games.”
The dispute on college athletes’ status began in late January when a former Northwestern quarterback, senior Kain Colter, announced the formation of the College Athletes Players Association – an organization aiming to unionize college athletes. Northwestern became the guinea pig for this experiment.
This also pits the college athletes also against The National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, the rule-making body of college sports. The NCAA has long described college athletes as students first and athletes second.
On its website, the College Athletes Players Association says players need collective bargaining protections. “College athletes generate billions of dollars per year yet lack basic protections because of NCAA rules,” the website says.
The organization has laid out five key demands:
- Guaranteed coverage for sport-related medical expenses
- Minimized risk for traumatic brain injuries related to sports
- Improved graduation rates
- Increased value in athletic scholarships and permission to seek commercial sponsorships
- Ensured due process rights when confronted with a rules violation
The most contentious have become the attempts to ensure medical expenses are paid for and to raise scholarship values.
The College Athletes Players Association argues that despite millions of dollars in revenue the NCAA collects annually, the players are not protected. “Players are too often stuck with sports-related medical expenses, can lose their scholarships if they are permanently injured, and ‘full’ scholarships are capped by the NCAA below the cost of attendance by $3,000-$5,000 per player per year,” the college athletes’ group argues.
The NCAA did not return six phone calls requesting an interview for this story. NCAA officials have agreed some changes are necessary, but argue that unionization is a step too far.
“The notion of using a union-employee model here is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert at a press conference during the men’s basketball Final Four in April.
On CBS’s “Face The Nation,” Emmert also criticized the notion that student-athletes should be recognized as employees. “We don’t even know what that looks like,” he said. “If they drop a ball, do they get fired? How do you recruit them? Do you hire them? Do you trade them? What does that relationship look like is any one’s guess now.”
School administrators have also argued that many of the players’ demands are already being addressed, even if a school is not contractually obligated to do so.
At Syracuse University, for example, three football players have had their careers end through or because of repeated concussions. Tyler Marona is one of those players.
Marona, a defensive end, stopped playing football before the 2013 season. He still is on scholarship. The NCAA permits schools to honor football players’ scholarships for the remainder of a student’s time at university if he suffers a career-ending injury. This scholarship does not count against the 85 scholarship limit Division 1 schools are allowed to allocate for football.
Marona praises the university’s treatment of him after the injury. “They’ve been great to me,” Marona said. All of his medical expenses have been paid for, he said, and he’s still a part of the team. “I still have my own locker, still get to work out with the team,” he said. “Now, I’m helping out more on the coaching side, but I’m still part of the program.”
Even if the players fail to unionize at Northwestern, it still may be in the NCAA’s best interest to voluntarily meet some of the players’ demands. “The best way to retain the maximum amount of control is to make some sensible concessions,” said sports historian Korr.
Korr has studied much of the history of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “The biggest ally the player’s union and its officials had was the arrogance and the ineptitude of the owners,” Korr says.
Some school administrators have expressed concern that the demands players seek now may be reasonable but that a union may open a Pandora’s Box.
Korr cautions that if the players are successful in forming a union, there may no end to the benefits sought. “There’s no limit as to what they can ask for. The fact that they ask for it, doesn’t mean they’ll get it,” said Korr. “The essence of collective bargaining between a union and an employer is bargaining.”
(Ben Peck is a senior with dual majors in broadcast and digital journalism and finance.)