Our View: Court says college athletes can unionize

DKS Editors

In what could go down as a landmark decision with vast implications for the future of college athletics, the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled last week that football players at Northwestern University are employees and have the right to unionize.

The ruling is just the latest of a number of court decisions that have sought to redefine amateurism in the modern-day college sports landscape. Last September, a lawsuit filed against Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company ended with a settlement for some 300,000 former players who claimed that the popular video game developer unlawfully used their likenesses in its games without permission or compensation. In the wake of that settlement, EA announced that it would no longer produce its popular college football game.

The athletes in the Northwestern case said they are seeking increased medical coverage, concussion testing, guaranteed four-year scholarships and the possibility of paid compensation for their labor. The Chicago court ruled that the fact that student-athletes are paid in the form of scholarships, work between 20 and 50 hours a week at their sports and generate revenue for their institutions was enough to classify them as employees, thus granting them rights afforded to employees. If upheld, it could mean, at the very least, that a collegiate athletes will be allowed a seat at the bargaining table and a means to lobby for their various demands.

But the NCAA says that the ruling could dismantle the entire system of amateur collegiate athletics.  

“We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid,” the NCAA chief legal officer said in a statement. “While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.”

There may be other unintended consequences if the athletes will indeed be allowed to unionize. Northwestern president emeritus Henry Bienen said that “collective bargaining situations” could force private institutions with high academic standards to abandon the current model in the name of academic integrity. Other legal analysts have said the ruling could make athletes responsible to pay taxes on their scholarships or allow a university to hire its football team regardless of the members’ status as students.

We believe that there are cracks in the NCAA model that could easily be addressed. At the very least, student-athletes could be provided health care that lasts beyond graduation or given the opportunity to profit off of their personal brand on the open market.

The main issue with the ruling is that it seems to imply that college sports are little more than a business. That notion goes directly against the essence of the NCAA, and it might lead to unintended consequences that could sever the link between student and athlete forever and turn collegiate athletics into a glorified professional feeder system.

The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.