Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Unionizing College Sports?

The following is a guest post from Brandon Johnson, a graduate student in Exercise and Sport Science at Eastern Kentucky University:

Nearly everyone agrees that a worker deserves a fair and suitable workplace environment. Yet, a less congenial notion within college athletics is who is deemed an employee. For years, student-athletes at the collegiate level were just that: student-athletes. Their schedules were crammed with coursework, meetings and practices. Such student-athletes gave their time, blood, sweat and tears in return for a college degree. Rarely thought to be employees, student-athletes represented their school in competition day in and day out. However, increases in technology and media coverage have led to a grand restructuring of the collegiate athletic model. Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games and March Madness have created a multi-billion dollar industry.

And now, student-athletes want their share.

A recent ruling by the National Labor Union declared members of the Northwestern University football team to be employees, therefore granting the right to unionize in pursuit of additional compensation. Considerable interest has been placed on the rights to better medical coverage, improved concussion testing and four-year scholarships, all in addition to receiving direct monetary compensation as an employee.

This issue needs to be addressed, but these student-athletes do not come out empty-handed as many are suggesting. Student-athletes have an opportunity to earn a college degree. Granted, the value of such is a bit tainted with the restriction on scholarships, as many student-athletes end up having to foot the bill for some of their education. Assuredly, there are financial struggles for student-athletes. However, the average college graduate in the United States, according to US News, owes nearly $30,000 for their education. I would be hard-pressed to think a graduate from some of the top tier programs owe a dime for the education.

Student-athletes provide a service to their schools through their athletic abilities. Very few collegiate athletic programs see a profit—herein lay the problem. The NCAA reports that only 14 of the 120 Division I FBS schools profited in 2012—Northwestern was not listed in the 14. That does not sound like the ideal business model—more expenses than revenue. Perhaps an argument could be made for the student-athletes at the schools that generate profit. But even then, student-athletes in these programs cannot be paid. Even without Title IX, there is no plausible way to do so. Not every starting quarterback deserves the same pay. Walk-ons and partial scholarship recipients create another issue. The glitches are endless.

There is simply no impartial way to pay student-athletes, both male and female equitably as required by Title IX. Besides, if Division I athletes claim they deserve payment the same can be said for the other levels of NCAA competition. Lower division NCAA affiliates have student-athletes too—and those athletic programs do not make money.

Clearly, without these student-athletes, there would be no March Madness. And, in many cases, eliminating athletic programs could cause a severe effect. And without these student-athletes, there would not be corporate executives lining their pockets thanks to inflated endorsement deals.
But on this premise, a minimum-wage employee’s, at McDonalds, for example, demand for a higher salary would be justified. After all, they are the ones creating the product which generates billions of dollars in revenue.

It is not fair. Welcome to the workforce. 

The model is not perfect. It is an unfortunate sight to see these student-athletes post-playing days. These student-athletes put their bodies on the line for their scholarships and things certainly need to be changed, but paying student-athletes is not the answer. Such a drastic change could have harsher impacts than perhaps what is being considered. Bear in mind, for instance, the impact on youth football programs around the country. Young athletes face endless pressures from coaches and parents to excel on the playing field. The allure of the scholarship and the enlarged professional salaries have obstructed the reality of the possibility and soiled the principle of youth sports as a whole—to have fun. The last thing we need is to add to the pressures. Doing so would likely lead to the end of youth football as we know it.

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