Athletic Student Union Questions

A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board announced that the members of the Northwestern football team have the right to unionize. Peter Sung Ohr stated in his ruling that college athletes on scholarship should be considered employees of the school, and as such can form a union.

First, why is the NLRB the one making this decision in the first place? Is it not considered a conflict of interest for an agency to decide whether it get to expand its own scope? This is a decision that should have been made by a disinterested third party.

Next, how far reaching is this decision? The article I read stated that the ruling would not apply to state schools because they are out of the NLRB's jurisdiction, but what of athletes for sports outside of football? Can you say that football players can unionize because that sport rakes in the moolah, while the women's water polo team can't because it runs at a deficit? The ruling specified that athletes on scholarship are considered employees- what about walk-on students? Could they join the union also? In most universities, the football and men's basketball programs provide the revenue for all the sports programs at a school. What programs will have to be cut as a result of the extra expense a unionized football team will bring? Then again, if only students on athletic scholarship are considered employees, could schools get around that by restructuring things so it appears the scholarships are for something else?

Representatives of the proposed union state that they have goals of payment for sports-related medical expenses. This is fair, but should not take unionization to accomplish. They also want to cut down on head injuries. (Hey, why not all injuries?) This is pretty hard for a school to accomplish unilaterally. Will the players refuse to get on the field if the refs don't abide by special rules to keep their noggins from knocking? Then they state another possible goal of allowing student-athletes to pursue commercial sponsorships. This is a big red flag for me. Like it or not, unionized or not, the school and its athletic programs must conform to NCAA rules if it wants its teams to compete. How will conflicts between a union contract and NCAA rules be resolved? Will this lead to direct government oversight of the NCAA?

If the unionization comes to be, how will that affect recruitment? Right now, Northwestern is the only private university in the Big 10, so it will be the only school potentially affected by this new unionization reality. Will students be more attracted to unionized programs than non-unionized schools? Will private schools cut back the number of scholarships offered? I don't know. I really don't know what role unionization will play on a recruit's decision on where to matriculate. If the NCAA rules stay in effect, then I don't see much in the way of change, as payments and gifts to players will still be banned, and being unionized might not give those schools any real advantage.

There is also the possibility that administrations find unionized athletic programs less attractive to continue, though I would think that a non-unionized football program that earns over $23 million a year will still rake in some money after unionization, but at what costs to other programs?

Quite simply put, I am against unionization of college sports. I don't think that scholarship athletes are employees of the university any more than students on scholarship for academics are. I also think that having different rules for different schools or for different classes of athletes within a school is a recipe for disaster. It will have an adverse effect on competition and make rules of conduct for athletes much more difficult to enforce.

The administration at Northwestern University is appealing Ohr's decision. I do hope for the sake of  college athletics as a whole, that they get this decision overturned.

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