The decision of the Chicago District of the National Labor Relations Board upholding the rights of Northwestern football players to unionize has far reaching implications for all of college athletics. Within hours of the NLRB's announcement, Northwestern, the Big 10, and the NCAA objected to the decision, which could be appealed right up to the Supreme Court. Those opposed to unionization argue that football players are student athletes, not employees, defending the cherished ideal of amateurism, and assert that college scholarships are more than fair compensation for their services. In their petition to the NLRB, the Northwestern players note that they are "faced with the serious risk of concussions and long-term injuries" and that their scholarships, room, and board are contingent upon their participation on the football field. They concede the value of that scholarship and the quality of their Northwestern education. They do not dispute the adequacy of their compensation or how well Northwestern treats them, but instead focus on their lack of negotiating power as students in a high-pressured business environment. Seeking the protection of collective bargaining, the players make a strong case that they are employees based on the time they devote to the sport (at least 40 hours per week in season and from 12 to 30 hours in the off season). They also note that they meet the common law definition of an employee as one who performs "services" for another and submits oneself to the "control" of another (a coach) in return for payment (a scholarship).
Although Northwestern and many other colleges undeniably value their football players' education and provide them with academic support, the question remains whether, with respect to their recruitment, the time commitment required of them, the conditions under which they are expected to work, and scheduling accommodations, "big-time" college football players are treated as athletes first and as students second with little or no power to address the escalating demands on their time and their bodies.
Although unionization seems to be a necessary consequence of the evolution of college football into a billion dollar industry, conceding that football players are no longer student-athletes comes with a steep price. Most college football players (98.3 percent) never go on to play professional football, and those who do play only for a few years. Clearly most players would be better served if they had the opportunity to spend their college years as students first and if their athletic experience complemented rather than competed with their academic studies. Upholding the integrity of the student athlete experience, however, would require significant reform -- including giving student athletes meaningful control over the conditions in which they train, practice, and play, as well as establishing and maintaining high standards for coaches as educators.
Ironically, the push for collective bargaining may not undermine the ideal of the student athlete but support it. One of the benefits that the Northwestern football players sought in their petition is to be able to participate more fully as students in their university. College administrators and faculty have reason to be proud that their student athletes are banding together to stand up for themselves. One of the benefits that the Northwestern football players sought in their petition is to be able to participate more fully as students in their university. College administrators and faculty have reason to be proud that their student athletes are banding together to stand up for themselves. After all, one of the goals of a college education is to develop autonomy and social responsibility. Rather than opposing the recent NLRB ruling, college administrators would do well to embrace it. Higher education is based on the pursuit of truth and justice through reflection and dialogue. Those who allowed college athletics to become an industry have a moral responsibility to deal with the consequences of that reality for their athletes.