Is A College Athletes Union A Crazy Idea?

College sports might be changed forever, as athletes are taking steps to be form a labor union. What this really means, though, is that student-athletes will be recognized by the institution as employees.

Ramogi Huma was a linebacker at UCLA. In 2001 he founded the National College Players Association (NCPA) as a way for students to advocate for changes at the NCAA. Last year, Huma was contacted by Kain Colter, quarterback at Northwestern University. Colter reached out to Huma asking for help in giving athletes representation.

Colter emphasized this move was not “because of any mistreatment by Northwestern… we’re interested in trying to help all players…” He went on to assert that the “NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union."

Then, on January 28th, on behalf of players at Northwestern University and with support from the United Steelworkers union, Huma submitted an application to the National Labor Relations Board to form the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).

Immediately, the NCAA responded saying, “student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Realtions Act.”

And this is the ultimate question.

College sports are big business. Student-athletes generate billions of dollars of revenue for colleges and universities nationwide. The question is, are they entitled to some of the profit they create? Basketball and football, the two most popular college sports, generated $4.7 billion in revenue last year alone. Most of this comes from TV deals and ticket sales. And while in most states, the highest-paid public employee is a coach, student athletes are only compensated in scholarship.

In an interview with ESPN, Huma said, “This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table. Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic, and financial protections.”

Right now, the main issues Colter seeks protection for relate to health and safety. They are not talking about - but not ruling out eventually - being paid to play. As of now, the group is advocating scholarship protections to be put in place, a guarantee of continued support for players who get injured. Currently, if a player is injured, they can lose their scholarship and face exorbitant medical bills that the university is in no way required to cover.

This hypothetical union has also called for the creation of a fund that a player would have access to when they are no longer NCAA eligible, accessible to help them finish their schooling.

The question of student-athlete safety is a legitimate concern. Even President Obama has joined the chorus of voices on the dangers of concussions. And while this is a widely accepted problem, whether unionization is the proper means of addressing it remains to be seen.

Ramogi Huma believes it is, saying, “It’s become clear that relying on NCAA policymakers won’t work, that they are never going to protect college athletes, and you can see that with their actions over the past decade.”

But beyond health and safety, CAPA is also pressing for bigger scholarships and to get a share of sponsorship money.

The argument against the formation of a college athletes union is that athletics are part of the overall education experience and not a separate activity.  The University argues that success on the field is due to their success as students, while the players argue that they succeed in the classroom in spite of their athletic requirements. The players will try to prove that the principal relationship they have with the school is not academic, but financial.

Robert Bruno, a professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois said, "They will show the profound level of control that the coaches have over their lives and demonstrate how they generate enormous wealth for the school that is completely unrelated to any academic objective.”

On the other side, Zev Eigen, a professor of labor law at Northwestern, says the likelihood of the players successfully unionizing is slim. Eigen says, “They are paying tuition to attend the university, and they are primarily students.” Despite the argument that the coaches exert extraordinary control over the players’ schedules, diets, and attire, Eigen says, “They are students first.”

There is a precedent to this case. Since the 1970s, graduate teaching assistants and medical residents have been trying to unionize. Similar to student-athletes, graduate teaching assistants invest a lot of time and energy into the school but don’t receive benefits that match the cost of attending the school. Even though they are paid, they are not considered employees. This movement has progressed with mixed results.

For the players’ part, Ramogi Huma seeks to end the 60 years where, “the NCAA has knowingly established a pay-for-play system while using terms like ‘student-athlete’ and amateurism’ to skirt labor laws.”

This issue is up in still up in the air. The next hearing will be on Tuesday, February 18th, and though it seems likely the attempt at unionization will not succeed this time, the movement is gaining speed. The growing amount of money generated by college sports, the rise in tuition, and the dangers of concussions all add to the blurry relationship between student-athletes and their institutions.

Student-athletes are indeed different from normal students. Scholarships aside, they have an educational experience that is entirely unique. They have access to private gyms, eating halls, and physical therapists. They get first choice in classes, preferential schedules, and are socially at the top of the school.

At the same time, college athletics is a full-time job added to what is already a full course load. This case would decide what student athletes are primarily: students or athletes. It does not so much decide what they have been, but it will determine for the future what they will be. If they unionize, it will differentiate them even more from the regular student, and it will separate them further from the college experience and shove their student duties deeper into the background. In short, this decision will answer whether they are student-athletes or athlete-students.

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