Earlier this month, a regional director of National Labor Board ruled that the players on Northwestern University's football team are technically employees of the school, and thus, should be able to unionize. This landmark decision has initiated debates about the rights of student athletes and the chaotic mess engulfing the financial and organizational structure of the NCAA's policies. Sports pundits and legal experts are filling the airwaves with praise and fallout of this decision -- everything from allowing these student athletes more flexibility to choose their own classes to the issue of taxation on athletic scholarships, and beyond.
While there needs to be serious reform in Division I collegiate athletics, I don't believe that unionization of student athletes is a serious step in the right direction to solve the most pressing concerns of student athletes at the highest level of competition. Yes, the unionization accomplishment will help to expose the corruption and self-serving agenda of the nation's college athlete governing board that takes financial advantage of the profits its student athletes makes for their respective universities. But the idea of exchanging scholarships for salaries is a scary possibility that could eventually force schools to spend even more on their collegiate athletic programs to match the scholarship value, since earnings are taxed and not scholarships.
According to recent statistic in The New York Times, only ten percent of Division I college sports make a profit, and this unionization gives incentives for schools to make even further cuts to their programs. Are these athletes seriously ready to collectively bargain and be subjected to being fined or even fired? Go on strike? Be expected to live up to the same behavior and professional standards as university administrators and professors? Students coming together as employees protected by a union and transitioning essentially into professionals is an awkward and absurd position that has no place on campus. Just look at how several universities with top-notch athletic programs issue a double standard against its star athletes involved in criminal offenses.
This legal maneuvering of unionizing does not advance the cause for a more respectable, transparent college athletic system. It certainly does not resolve the issue of how colleges use academics as a smoke screen in exchange for exploiting the talents of gifted young men and women for the schools' financial gain. Recent reports, including one from the award winning HBO sports investigate journalism show "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" reveal that many recruited student athletes (many of whom are minorities) are entering college with primary school level reading, writing, and math skills. One former football player at the University of Memphis admits to having read Sam I Am and Dr. Seuss and working on phonetics of single letters with a tutor to help him cope with his disability. Many of these top recruits are placed into a fraudulently compromised curriculum of hand-picked majors and assigned classes that they have no choice over (many of which are "no-show"), including random foreign language classes such as Swahili! Student athletes at several universities are gaining credit for classes they aren't even submitting assignments to. This is all done to manipulatively masquerade meeting the requirement that teams under the NCAA have at least fifty percent of its team graduate every year.
How do well-respected academic institutions like the University of North Carolina and Baylor University get away with blatant academic fraud, and even more importantly, how do NCAA officials ignore what's right in front of them? It is time for Congress to take off the gloves and seriously investigate the practices of the NCAA. Major League Baseball got away with rampant performance enhancing drug use until high profile athletes and the Commissioner were dragged into federal hearings. No less an action is warranted here. The NCAA must reinstate the policy that student athletes hit a baseline score on standardized tests and come up with legitimate, real-world markers that chart their way through the demands of coursework and athletics. When the men's basketball team at UConn won the national championship earlier this week, most focused on how the team overcame the underdog status the entire tournament, injuries, and an inexperienced coach to defy odds and win it all. But it shouldn't be forgotten that this same team was penalized for multiple accounts of recruiting violations over the last several years, as well as being banned from last year's tournament for failing in 2010-2011 to hit the minimum benchmark of the Academic Progress Rate (the first Division I school to do so).
The NCAA should establish regional regulation directors for schools competing in its conference to make sure its athletes are meeting all the academic standards consistent, and at the same time, that coaches are not taking advantage of their players' commitments by scheduling practices and meetings that extend beyond time regulations. If a student athlete wants to take a class that conflicts with team training, priority should go to the academic option. These schools are supposed to be training these student athletes for the real world, not just a life in professional sports.
But the fact of the matter is that even at these premier college sports teams/programs these teams will field relatively few players who will ever play a single day on a professional sports team. What are these student athletes going to do with their lives without a fully devoted, fair education program to prepare them for a competitive job market outside of the sports field? And what happens to athletes without a strong education who make it to the pros but are forced to look elsewhere after injuries force retirement? The obvious answer is that they face a bleak future. While unionization is not the way to go for a solution, student athletes require a bigger voice in this convoluted process. Considering the large magnitude of services they provide in the form of profits that run into the hundreds of millions of dollars universities collectively provide annually to the NCAA, this shouldn't even be up for debate! As Professor Glenn Wong of the University of Massachusetts Amherst argues, legal representation should be provided to student matters regarding transfer, eligibility and financial issues, as well as for consulting about potential professional sports contracts. The NCAA should also improve health benefits and offer its DI student athletes disability insurance to make sure its best assets have a financial security blanket.
The other week the student newspaper at my school, Bowdoin College, released an editorial arguing for more transparency and open discourse about how Bowdoin and other NESCAC colleges recruit athletes based on the student athletes' high school academic credentials. While this issue differs from the problems being discussed on the biggest scales of college athletics, it speaks volumes about the depth of problems ridding the system. To the administrators of the NCAA and university leaders with big-time athletic programs, I implore you to stop turning a blind eye to this urgent crisis!