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Should college athletes have the right to unionize?

April 16, 2014

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

The 2014 pre-season may be one of the most dramatic for college football, not because of the new recruits and the hiring and firing of coaches, but because of the possible actions of the scholarship players on the Northwestern University football team. The players have been granted the right to unionize by a National Labor Relations Board regional director, who ruled that the players are school employees.

The players argued that they should be able to unionize because the university is private and not public, their playing is not part of the educational mission, and they are employees of the university who receive compensation through scholarships for services rendered on the field. The regional director, Peter Sung Ohr, who studied the football players’ schedule, agreed. He said the players’ significant time commitment to football activities took precedence over academic work and cited the fact that football generates revenue for Northwestern.

Unionizing would mean that the players would vote to be represented by a union, in this case, the College Athletes Players Association, which would bargain for wages and other benefits on the players’ behalf. Union practices are regulated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the executive agency that oversees unions and proper employment practices, and enforces labor laws.

Unions are legally recognized groups of employees that elect representatives to speak on their behalf to management. Unions exist in many occupations, from actors to assembly-line workers, and each one is a little different. Most unions negotiate and oversee labor contracts, which are agreements between the union and the company that detail salaries, benefits, hiring and firing practices, and worker safety.

In the Northwestern case, only football players who have scholarships would be eligible to unionize. The players decided to try to unionize based on grievances they had with the controls and regulations that the university imposed on the team, including:
  • Freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus.
  • The athletic department must approve any outside employment.
  • The players are restricted on what they can post on the Internet.
  • The players cannot profit from their likeness. They sign releases that allow the university and the Big Ten (Northwestern’s athletic conference) to use their name or likeness for profit without compensating the player.

Northwestern University argued that the football players are not employees, but students, first and foremost. Their argument centers on the belief that as university athletes, football is part of their academic process, and therefore their scholarships are for academics, not for services rendered. Northwestern also contends that by allowing the players to unionize, chaos would ensue because student athletes in the union could negotiate economic and non-economic conditions and possibly strike while others on the same team couldn’t.

Northwestern has appealed the regional director’s ruling to the National Labor Relations Board. The losing party in the Northwestern case could appeal to a federal appeals court, and the case could continue to the Supreme Court. The court look to a 1980 decision in which it ruled that faculty members at Yeshiva University were not regular employees because “principles developed for use in the industrial setting cannot be imposed blindly on the academic world” because it is different.

The players will vote by secret ballot on April 25 on whether they want to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association. The simple majority vote will determine whether the players join the union.

The outcome of the case could mean major changes for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and private universities, but not public ones. The National Labor Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1935, does not cover employees of state and local governments, including state universities. State labor laws cover the rights of those employees.

What do you think?

Should Northwestern’s scholarship football players have the right to join a union? Are they school employees or students first? Should athletes in other college programs be allowed to unionize? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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Magnolia Texas
David Beeson
Mr. Metzger
I personally believe that schools should be allowed to unionize under certain guidelines. I believe that every school must pay all of there players the same salary. This way they will be able to pay for food and events. Also I guarantee that many schools already pay certain players school like Alabama.

Sidney Montana
Jared Jurgens
Mr. Faulhaber
I think that they should be able to unionize under one condition. All colleges have to pay the same amount and one college should no be able to pay more if they are a more popular and rich school. It also could make the school money. If students were able to sell stuff the school could be able to make say 50% of the profit. I also feel this way because many of the students are broke and unable to pay for food.

Sidney, MT
Mr. Faulhaber
No I do not think that college athelets have the right to join a union. A college Athlete is given scholorships which could potentially pay for all of their schooling, housing, and even a meal plan. In some cases the athlete does not receive a full ride. However they are still receiving a schooling at a discounted price and they are there to be a student. Which is why they are so often called student athletes.

Mr Faulhaber/Sidney High School
If you are a college athlete then you should absolutely be able to unionize. I guarantee that schools like Alabama, Clemson, and many other successful football programs are paying there athletes in some way. They somehow manage to get the best players every single year and none of the players transfer. There is some sort of income. No doubt about that. But I like the idea of paying athletes simply because they have no time to get a job when their main focuses are school and football. They will not have much free time if any at all. College athletes are being paid illegally already so they might as well make it legal to pay them. Many football players try to get to the NFL as quickly as possible because they want a source of income. If colleges paid them a decent amount they would probably stay in college for a couple more years.

Stroudsburg, Pa
I do not think they have the right to join a union. I think it is stupid, if I were a college athlete and was on a scholarship, I would not be complaining. They are receiving a top notch education for a discounted price because they play football. They are students first and athletes second. I do not think any college programs should be allowed to unionize because there is no need for it, they are already receiving a discounted college education, they should not be asking for much more.

Stroudsburg, PA
Mr. Hanna/ Stroudsburg JHS
Northwestern scholarship football players should have the right to unionize. The football players are school employees first, they dedicate all their time to football and get their school a lot of money from the games. They also do not have the option to get jobs and make money if they are committing all their time to the football team. Athletes in other college programs should be allowed to unionize. All college football players should have the right to get paid.

Charlottesville Va
Dr.huneycutt Mhs
I think The football players of big schools that are well known should get paid. Because those are the ones with the most publicity and fans. So that means more jersey sales more cleats sales and so on and so forth. If they unionize I believe they will get what they want because they do deserve to get paid. They go through hell everyday for companies to make money off them

Murrieta CA
Mr.Jabro Creekside Highschool
I think the football players of Northwestern should be allowed to unionize. They are students first though considering it is a school. No,other schools that are public should not be allowed to because they play for the school as an extracurricular and if they are to be paid then so should the other activities.

Jasmine D
Mr.Hanna/Stroudsburg JHS
I think the football players should have the right to join the union, because if they are a really good player the school is going to want them, and give then a scholarship. For anything students must come first then employees. I think athletes playing other sports should be allowed to unionize as well as anyone else that plays a sport, because if they were not able to that would be in fair.

Stroudsburg, PA
Mr. Hanna/Stroudsburg JHS
Northwestern players should not be able to unionize in my opinion. They are students first and no other colleges should not be able unionize. The athletes may bring in revenue for the school because of their popularity, but schools often pay them through a scholarship and a free education. If student start going to college to make money rather than learn the colleges may find financial struggles in the future.

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