Opinion: Unions long overdue for athletes

At a glance, the idea of college athletes unionizing might seem a little silly.

In the minds of the American public, we link unions with “Big Labor”: established industries with thousands (or millions) of employees that keep our economy running on all cylinders.

Currently, however, many student-athletes are devoting time to sports that is comparable to the hours of full-time employees at America’s colleges and universities.

These athletes deserve to be able to bargain.

Just as employees in any other industry in America should have an outlet for expressing where their employer is falling short, NCAA athletes participating in large-scale programs have the right to protect their interests and well-being.

At Northwestern University, student-athletes put 50-60 hours a week into “football and football-related activities” during the preseason, 40-50 during the season, and 20-30 during the off-season.

In fact, the football team at Northwestern, led by quarterback Kain Colter, is at the forefront of a new effort to unionize at the collegiate level.

With the support of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), the team at Northwestern has expressed interest in unionizing, and regional National Labor Relations Board Director Peter Sung Ohr has supported their effort.

Critical to Ohr’s argument was the amount of time these student-athletes devote to the football program, admittedly much more time than they devote to their studies.

Ohr also noted that these athletes essentially sign a contract before participating: a national letter of intent and a four-year scholarship. The athlete’s compensation, the scholarship, has specific stipulations regarding the terms of the agreement.

As noted in the “Common-law employees” section of the IRS Employer’s Supplemental Tax Guide, “anyone who performs services for you is generally your employee if you have the right to control what will be done and how it will be done.”

Big-program athletes are clearly performing a service for their schools, and through controlling the terms of their compensation (their scholarship), schools have a more than effective way of being able to control how many hours an athlete puts in and the athlete’s conduct during those hours.

Adding further credence to the desire of Northwestern players to unionize, the demands expressed through CAPA thus far have been entirely reasonable and representative of reforms that already have been delayed too long.

CAPA has articulated that they want colleges and universities to take steps to reduce brain-injuries to players and provide health care coverage for former players that experience game-related health problems.

At the heart of the issue of unionization, however, are the billions of dollars that colleges and universities are happily pocketing from top-level football and basketball programs.

Are the athletes really being fairly compensated considering the number of hours they devote to their schools? The argument could be made that the athletes should simply play “for the love of the game.”

Let’s get real though: for big-program athletes, their sport represents a huge part of their livelihood.

They are participating in the program to gain the skills that they will need to make a living, as well as for the enjoyment of an activity.

Just because I enjoy playing the piano and singing does not mean I want to play at everyone’s wedding for free.

Similarly, college athletes should be fairly compensated regardless of the perceived enjoyment of their sport.

After considering the characteristics of a common-law employee and the substantial number of hours that these athletes put into their programs, it is self-evident that they represent employees of the college.

Although there will be plenty of kicking and screaming from big program schools that enjoy all of the money they are making, eventually the just decision will be made.

No longer will the conversation be a one-way street, with schools and coaches dictating the terms of athletes’ contracts.

Now, the players will find their voice.

-Henry Ashton ’15, Senior Politics/Opinions Editor

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