College Football Players – Employees or Students?

I’ve been chewing on this news all day. On Wednesday, March 26, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago approved the request of the Northwestern University football and basketball players, led by former quarterback Kain Colter, to be considered employees of the University and be given the right to Unionize. Wow.

According to the CNN article and Colter’s interview on Mike & Mike (ESPN radio), the players’ goal was more than just money, it was about having a voice and the right to seek better medical coverage and 4 year scholarships. The reality is that is sets the stage for potentially changing the face of college athletics, and I think not for the better. While I understand the concerns, with this approach I see a big mess coming. Prior to this ruling, this issue was in the hands of the NCAA and its member schools. Now it will be put in the hands of the legal system. Correction; multiple legal systems. Private schools are covered under the NLRB. The public universities are covered under their individual states’ public employee union and labor laws (according to reports through ESPN). This ruling also only applies to two sports. What about the others? More motions, more legal issues. BIG. MESS.

I blame two sets of people for it – the NCAA and the 20 or so universities who got greedy and turned their football programs into massive money making entities. The issue of on-going medical care for students and establishing 4 year scholarships (most schools only offer 1 year scholarships, for up to 4 years) could have been addressed by the NCAA years ago. Even more impactful are the crazy rules (in my opinion) that the NCAA has established for scholarship student athletes. For my entire adult life I’ve been aware of concern that the NCAA’s rules for gifts to scholarship athletes were too strict, forcing some students to live with next to no financial support, was too strict and unfair to these students. Why hasn’t the NCAA been willing to treat this like other work-study type programs or allow schools to provide stipends to their students? Fear, perhaps? Fear of students being bribed by alumni? Right, because these rules have stopped that. Fear of unfair treatment? Fear of losing the “student athlete” concept? Too late. So in my opinion, the NCAA’s in ability or unwillingness to address this issue and make a decision is to blame for this.

I also blame the big schools that have been going after big money through their sporting programs, primarily football. In listening to Colter’s interview, he plainly calls out these schools and says plenty of small schools support their programs and academics without TV contracts and retail sales. He says if they are going to go after TV dollars and sales revenue based on specific students’ likenesses, then the students have a right to part of it. Can you imagine what it’s like to be a student at a major university that has a TV contract and pays its coach millions of dollars, and you can’t even have a lunch bought for you by your friend’s dad because he’s an alum? I’d be frustrated. I’m not saying that is Colter’s case, but I can imagine the high-fives he’ll get from some student athletes who have lived this. College athletics was intended to provide opportunities FOR STUDENTS. Instead, thanks to the greed, it has now become a way to provide financial opportunities for those who are not students. I understand that schools need revenue to exist. I am aware that some state run universities receive only about 8% of their operating expenses from the state. However, there is a big difference between finding sources to support the school and greed. It’s biblical: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10). Not money, just the love of it. I’d say that we are seeing this truth be played out before our eyes.

I see two options as a resolution. Either the NCAA and member schools can reach an agreement quickly that includes an appropriate stipend for the student athletes or this can go to the courts. If it goes to the courts, I believe we will eventually see significant inequality across schools, states, and sports. Further, we will most likely see D1 football turn into semi-pro/ minor league teams. Some people don’t think this is negative, but I do. It’s bad enough that these kids think they are all going to the pros just because they play on a major conference team. They don’t. Setting them up in a semi-pro type environment will send them the message that their education is unnecessary. This is an opportunity for these universities to care more about the student athletes than they do their own pockets. Will they step up, or will they continue to pursue the almighty dollar? For the sake of the majority of student athletes everywhere, I hope they will refocus on the students.



One thought on “College Football Players – Employees or Students?

  1. The Northwestern football players voted last Friday either for or against unionizing. The results may not come out for weeks or months, as there are now pending court cases challenging the initial ruling allowing this vote to happen. Stay posted!

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