Initially, the idea that college athletes are university employees and could vote to form a union seems absurd.
But the more you think about the multimillion dollar business that major college athletics has become, the more you realize that the athletes have a point about their treatment.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that college athletes at Northwestern University are employees of the school. As such, they could form a union.
The ruling applied only to Northwestern athletes, will undoubtedly be appealed, and really doesn’t have much immediate impact.
That subtlety flew over the head of the NCAA, the college athletic governing body. Their response was strident, and in many cases inaccurate, proving that the NCAA doesn’t really understand what’s happening.
The argument that the athletes group made to the NLRB was that since they are receiving a scholarship from the university, they are in fact being paid. That, they argued, makes them employees. The students aren’t necessarily asking for more pay, although they do want the ability to make money from endorsements and appearances.
The athletes also want a better academic experience, easier transfer rules, and better medial care both during their time at the university and afterward.
It would be difficult for the union movement to spread nationwide. Northwestern is a private university so it falls under the rules of the NLRB. Public universities – such as the University of Illinois or Illinois State University – fall under state laws and are not governed by the NLRB. Presumably it would be much more difficult to form unions at the state-supported schools.
What’s at the core of this issue is a better deal for athletes. A lot of people – coaches, administrators, vendors and broadcasters – are making millions of dollars off of college athletics. By comparison, the athletes receive a valuable scholarship, but little else.
There are plenty of examples where athletes are treated unfairly. Coaches who cheat often find other jobs, while the remaining athletes suffer the penalties imposed by the NCAA. Coaches can break contracts for a fatter paycheck, but athletes usually have to sit out a year to transfer to other schools.
The universities, and the NCAA, can make millions off the likeness of a college athlete, but if that athlete signs a few autographs for money the athlete can be suspended.
A college athlete labor union is unnecessary and unworkable. But the message from the Northwestern ruling isn’t that athletes are employees or that forming a athlete’s union is a decent solution.
The message is that universities and the NCAA needs to pay more attention to the gifted athletes that are bringing in millions of dollars to the their schools and organizations.