Amazing what a little gambit by a few college students can produce. As much as I wish this was about teaching assistants and adjunct professors unionizing and demanding a more equitable place at the table, it isn't. It is about the Northwestern Wildcat football players taking steps to unionize. Since the announcement came out Tuesday the amount of people speaking out has been impressive if not remarkable. I'm most surprised, however by the response of the NCAA.
I probably shouldn't be surprised by the NCAA. When it comes to disciplining and reacting to the athletes they are usually right on top of it. A player sells an autograph? Get on that! Addressing such sticky issues like graduation rates, well, that is each program's responsibility. I'm sure from a legal standpoint, the students have no leg to stand on, which is too bad. The NCAA is very confident that student-athletes are not employees by definition of the National Labor Relations Board. If I were an employer, that is where I would go for a definition too. I definitely would not go to the people in question as to what they see their relationship to the greater university is. Allowing students to determine their role in the complex relationship between university and athlete? That is just crazy talk.
When looking at the NCAA statement, however, thing become a bit murkier:
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary."
I will grant that the purpose of college is an education. I do not, for one second, believe that is the purpose of major college sport programs. Even a cursory glance at CNN's recent report about graduation rates exposes that education is of minimal to no importance to collegiate administrations with major sports teams. The attempt to unionize, in fact is doing much more to support that mission than anything the NCAA has done regarding graduation. One of the main objectives of the union is to have schools guarantee scholarships if a player is injured and can no longer play, doesn't seem too undermining.
The other canard in the above statement is that this is somehow voluntary. Sure, an athlete doesn't have to accept the scholarship and play the sport, but what kind of choice is that? Take the opportunity for exposure to the profession you aspire to and an education or don't and either pay one's own way to college, or more likely, not attend at all? It rings much like the nineteenth century argument against unions in factories, "no one is forcing you to work here. You can either take this horrendous job or starve. Freedom of the market!"
Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.
"No employee relationship" is another odd phrase, which I have no doubt the NLRB will support. While it might not be employee/employer in a traditional sense, I would argue that there is a "quid pro quo" arrangement. The "student"-athletes we are discussing here aren't the majority of athletes participating in non-revenue sports. These "students" would not be at the college without the "scholarships and other benefits." Please note, this is not to say these athletes wouldn't go to college, but if this is voluntary, if this isn't about compensation on some level, let's try an experiment. I propose that The Big Ten stops offering scholarships for all of it's sports, better yet, all Division I teams stop giving scholarships and all lower divisions are still allowed to do so. How long before John Carroll starts beating Ohio State?
In 1939, Robert Maynard Hutchins discontinued football at the University of Chicago leading to the university eventually leaving the Big Ten Conference completely. His thinking was that big time athletics had very little to do with the true mission of a university, namely education. Today those sports are bigger and more powerful on our campuses than Hutchins could have ever imagined. The reaction of the NCAA and many commentators emphasizes that power and the lengths those in control are willing to go to keep their interests safe. Unionized athletes, athletes gaining even a minor say in the industry that they do all of the heavy work is threat to the status quo. Even the hint of rebellion, a rebellion that would peter out as athletes leave college, needs to be addressed and suppressed. To examine the Northwestern players position, to actually listen to their argument is to go too far and possibly acknowledge there is a problem with the system. Just like the labor movements of a century ago, progress will be slow, even halting at times. But at least this a start.