Fewer than one in three Americans believes that college football players should have the right to form a labor union, even though most are highly sympathetic to the grievances aired by pro-union athletes, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows.
Last month, football players at Northwestern University announced that they had filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces labor law on unions and employers. If the board allows the election to proceed, the players could vote to establish the first labor union in college athletics.
The new poll finds that 48 percent of Americans think college athletes should not be allowed to form unions to bargain over medical coverage and the terms of their scholarships, as the Northwestern players wish to do, while only 30 percent of Americans said they should be allowed to do so.
But far more support players in some of the goals the players hope to achieve by unionizing. By a 51 percent to 32 percent margin, most said that colleges and universities should be required to cover medical costs for former players if those costs stem from participation in college athletics.
By an even greater margin, 73 percent to 14 percent, most said that colleges and universities should be required to honor -- and not allowed to withdraw -- athletic scholarships for students who are injured and unable to play.
The Northwestern case could theoretically drag on for years due to the difficult legal question at its core: Should college football players be considered employees of their schools? The Northwestern players, who are backed by the United Steelworkers union, are likely to argue that their scholarships establish an employer-employee relationship. The NCAA has already said that it strongly disagrees with that position.
Most Americans also reject that argument, saying by a 63 percent to 20 percent margin that college athletes are not turned into employees simply by virtue of receiving high-priced scholarships that are contingent on their participation in their sport.
If the Northwestern players manage to unionize -- and if the campaign spreads to other schools -- it could dramatically change the dynamics of big-time college sports. Although the Northwestern players are not explicitly calling for wages, representatives of the proposed union have said the athletes want the ability to negotiate over how financial benefits such as health care coverage and athletic scholarships are administered.
Some critics of the NCAA establishment, including players at other schools, have argued that college football players should be paid wages. In the HuffPost/YouGov poll, the majority of respondents did not agree: Only 24 percent said college athletes should be paid, while 59 percent said they should not.
The aversion to unionization by college athletes may have an ideological component. The idea of letting the players unionize was rejected 71 percent to 14 percent by Republicans and 48 percent to 28 percent by independents. But Democrats, by a 43 percent to 33 percent margin, said college athletes should be allowed to form unions.
The poll also found partisan division over requiring colleges to pay certain medical costs for former players. The idea was supported by Democrats 65 percent to 19 percent, and by independents 47 percent to 33 percent, but Republicans were opposed 46 percent to 38 percent.
On the other hand, the idea of prohibiting colleges from taking scholarships away from injured players was very broadly approved. Eighty percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of independents said colleges should be required to honor those scholarships.
In 2012, California became the first state to pass a law protecting the scholarships of some athletes whose college careers end due to injury sustained while playing their sport.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Feb. 1-2 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.