Recently, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern’s football players have the right to unionize. While I personally view unions as entities to help workers receive collective bargaining rights and better pay, there are situations where unions are impractical. The arguments made by the football players is that students have to abide by a very strict code in order to remain on the team, without fair benefits. Additionally, the students pointed directly to the fact that the NCAA does not have a very effective policy when it comes to injuries sustained by athletes during competition.
The first point seems to be false though. These student athletes are correct when they say there are codes and protocols they follow which regular students are not subjected to. However, many of these student athletes from Division I and II schools are given scholarships, which will only be maintained with the voluntary participation in the sport by the student athletes. Yes, these student athletes put multiple hours into their sport, but they also receive a scholarship for their efforts. Many of these programs offer more than scholarships though. Even Division III athletes can receive perks, such as paid meals during competition, free items such as bags, clothes, or competition shoes. So to say that student athletes, at any level, do not receive benefits for their commitment to the sport is an exaggerated point. I run track at a D3 school, and even yet I still have managed to receive free stuff, despite the fact that I’m not in one of the more revenue making sports. In more powerful collegiate programs, student athletes also can receive special consideration for dorms, class choices and work schedules.
The second point, however, is one which must be addressed. The NCAA’s current rules on sports injuries is that every athlete must have health insurance, but the schools get to decide how much they will pay towards any injury sustained during a sport. Many colleges and universities do the honorable thing anyways, doing their best to pay for treatment for their student athletes to recover fully. But some places just aren’t as kind, and many other institutions will stop footing the bill once the student-athlete has left the institution, even if the injuries are still present. The NCAA needs to change their policy, to hold institutions more responsible when their competitors get injured, there is not a doubt in my mind. The issue is whether a union at one university be able to challenge the NCAA effectively? As the ruling currently stands, it would leave Northwestern’s football team the right to challenge the institution or the NCAA directly. Perhaps, if a student union challenged just one institution, it would be more effective, I can’t say with certainty. But there would be no basis for the institution to pay for injuries due to NCAA rules. Which leads back to where we started, saying that a union at one school most likely could not challenge the NCAA alone.
Beyond the realm of college sports though, this ruling has a negative impact on unions. I’ll go as far to say that this decision trivializes unions in the public realm, and hurts their already sliding perception in society. Many individuals already are skeptics that unions just ruin business, and that the ideal way they would work is never implemented. If we allow college athletes to unionize, with all of the perks they already are given to play their sport, I am skeptical how many people would say unions really fight for the worker, and just aren’t “union bosses” who pick on businesses and institutions. Student athletes are attending great institutions, receiving an education, a place to live, and meal plans. Comparing these individuals to someone who is struggling to make a decent wage in order to pay for their children’s education, their place to live, and their meals just isn’t being intellectually honest with ourselves. Yes, they both are working in exchange for something, but an average union worker needs to interact with third parties in order to get all of those living expenses, as opposed to a student athlete who just needs to interact with the institution he or she attends.
Let me be clear that I sympathize with student athletes everywhere who have been victims of sports injuries and are struggling to get their institutions to help with the burden of medical costs. The real issue here is the poorly written rules in the NCAA handbook, with such a vague statement only requiring student athletes to have health care coverage. The rules which the NCAA operates under must be rewritten, without a doubt in my mind. However, a union at each institution seems to be an extreme method to achieve change. Until the rules are rewritten, I believe that legally any institution will have the upper hand against a lawsuit brought by an injured student athlete. To achieve change, I would suggest we place scrutiny on the NCAA and their lax rules and bring them to public criticism. I worry that student athlete unions will just give unions a lot of negative press, hurting the people who need them most: the workers. Unions aren’t bad, but in this case I question if they would accomplish anything meaningful or just become a hassle in the already complicated realm of college athletics. Hopefully in the near future, when I go to the checkout line at Walmart, it will be my cashier who is in a union, not myself.
Until next time,