Athletes As Employees

You have probably heard about the recent decision by the Labor Relations Board in Illinois allowing Northwestern University football players to unionize. In case you haven’t, here’s the lead from a recent news article:

Northwestern University football players on scholarship are employees of the school and therefore entitled to hold an election to decide whether to unionize, an official of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday.

The stunning decision, coming after a push by former quarterback Kain Colter backed by organized labor, has the potential to shake up the world of big-time college sports.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and universities set the rules and cut the lucrative deals with TV networks and sponsors, exerting near total control over the activities of players known as “student athletes.” But now those football players, at least at Northwestern, are employees too and may seek collective bargaining status, according to the 24-page ruling by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the NLRB.

Northwestern University plans to appeal the ruling and the likelihood is that the case will be in court for years making lawyers rich and everyone else frustrated — not unlike the case involving the Deadlock estate Charles Dickens talks about in Bleak House! By the time the lawyers finished with that one, the money at issue had been all used up in lawyers’ fees. This case will cost some people a great deal of money in the end as well. And, while workers’ rights are certainly part of the equation, it is money that is the primary focus.

The American football industry, housed primarily in NCAA Division I Universities, brings in well over a billion dollars in TV revenue every year and the kids who play the game want their share — or at the very least some protection from abusive coaches and unscrupulous university administrators. They are being exploited, as Karl Marx would point out, and they have finally figured out that this must stop. Whether it will or not remains to be seen. I have my doubts. The universities and the NCAA are both dead set against this and they are the ones who have all the money on their side and they like the idea of making sure they don’t kill the golden goose, and in this case the goose is named student/athlete. In effect, the kids are taking on the establishment. Go, David, kill Goliath!

What I find especially interesting is the inherent contradiction involved in the ruling that these athletes are employees of the universities. Not students, apparently, but employees: they really can’t be both. There goes the fiction of the student/athlete, assuming anyone believed it any more. The graduation rates for Division I football and male basketball players are a joke, as is commonly known. And the examples of kids who are recruited, don’t make the team, and are later discarded are legion. By making these kids employees folks like Kain Coulter, an oft-injured but terribly gifted quarterback who recently finished his collegiate football career, hope to get them the protection a union contract would seem to guarantee. At issue are such things as terms and conditions of employment, spending money, practice times, but especially medical benefits. It sounds good on paper. We shall see,

Those who have read my blogs and checked out the article on my web page about “The Tail That Wags The Dog” will expect me to applaud this effort on the part of the players at Northwestern. And I do. It helps rid us of the hypocrisy that is Division I athletics at American colleges and Universities. As things stand at present, the vast majority of those who play Division I “revenue sports,” aptly called, tend not to spend much time in class or worry overmuch about their grades and their future, in or out of the professional ranks. For years now I have recommended that we do away with the sham and hypocrisy and simply admit that these kids are professional athletes — pay them a decent wage, and let those who want to pay for their classes pursue a degree. It just seems more honest somehow. This step toward unionization appears to be the first step — if it is allowed by the courts and the powers that be. In any event, it is a sure bet that changes will be forthcoming, though no matter what comes about the colleges and universities (and the NCAA) will almost certainly not suffer in the process.

 

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Unions

Back in the day when I was a young, fresh PhD out of Northwestern University employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Rhode Island, there was talk of the faculty unionizing. As I say, I was young (and naive) and I thought that such a thing would destroy “collegiality” and set the faculty and administration at odds — establish an adversarial relationship that would run counter to what we were trying to do at that University, which I naively thought at the time was to educate young people. In any event, despite my opposition unionization happened at that University though in the meantime I went elsewhere; a few years later I ended up in a state college in Minnesota that did not have any unions. But, again, there was talk of forming a state-wide union. Acrimonious talk. While this talk was going on the administration where I taught decided to hack up the faculty and fired seven faculty members from the liberal arts faculty, two of whom had tenure, in order to shift emphasis at the college to the “useful arts,” i.e., education and business (where they thought the dollars were hiding, and legislators would be made happy). I still fought the notion of unions, even though I realized that they might give the faculty some punch which they clearly lacked when dealing with unscrupulous administrators and legislators worried only about saving some of the taxpayer’s money (presumably so they could get more of it themselves).

We eventually became unionized and I have benefitted financially from it. As a retired fart I am comfortable and I need not worry over much about putting food on the table or paying for the medical bills that have begun to come rolling in. I hesitate to bite the hand that feeds me, but I am still anti-union — in principle. I still think it destroys collegiality and puts the administration at odds with the faculty. I have seen it first-hand. I have also seen the union save the job of an incompetent  member of my faculty who threatened to throw a student through the window! In that case, the administrator involved failed to follow proper protocol, as the union was quick to point out. Indeed, I am aware that there is a significant number of people in harness at my old university (as it is now called) whose job is protected by the unions and who otherwise would be on the streets begging for a handout. I dare say there are a great many incompetent teaching faculty around the country whose jobs are protected by the unions.

As I say this, however, I realize that there are also a great many decent, bright and able people whose jobs would be lost if it were not for the clout that the unions have and which small clusters of faculty members simply do not have. There are two sides to this issue when it comes to unions and I go back and forth, because I do not think they belong in a university setting, but I realize that without them the universities would be run by incompetent administrators (whose numbers have grown by leaps and bounds in the last twenty years and who are paid vastly more than they are worth.)

Now we hear, on another front entirely, that the football team at my alma mater wants to unionize. But, again, in principle, I think they are wrong to wish for such a thing: the grounds on which they stand on this issue are very thin indeed. They are not workers who require a strong voice. They are students (presumably) who have voluntarily chosen to play football for Northwestern University and who are given a huge amount of money (approximately $60,000.00 a year, I am told, plus free health-care for four years, which they apparently regard as inadequate) to attend classes and work for a degree that will stand them in good stead in the world of business when they graduate. The NCAA opposes the players (which is almost alone sufficient reason to support them). But the talk persists: there are huge amounts of money involved in collegiate football and the players want their share. They also fear concussions and other physical impairment that are almost certain to follow from four years of smashing heads with others of their ilk in the “Big Ten” [which now has about fourteen teams. Please explain, if you can]. They are right. But they are also wrong.

Unions protect those who desperately need protection. But they also protect the incompetent. And they tend to become over-large and frequently riddled with corruption. There’s the rub. In this case, they would protect those who are being clearly exploited by the universities whose main interest is with profits from TV revenue. But unions also imply that the players are not students at all, they are employees of the universities. In this regard, the attempt on the part of the football players to unionize is more honest because most college athletes at this level are not students (simply look at the courses they take and the disproportionate numbers that fail to graduate). And there are huge amounts of money involved and there are also, in fact, debilitating injuries and health problems that show up later. As I say, it would be more honest to allow the football teams to unionize. But if these players want to do so they should drop all pretense of being students and acknowledge that they are semi-professional athletes and play for pay. If they then want an education, they could pay part of their salaries to the colleges and universities and attend classes, working toward a degree like the other students. Then, as semi-professional athletes they can attempt to deal with the problems that seem invariably to accompany unionization.