Back in 2014, history was (nearly) made in college sports when football players from Northwestern University filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to organize a union for student-athletes. Their reasons ranged from low stipends to inadequate medical care, but the student-athletes made the argument that their contribution to the university required proper payment—something they were not seeing with the current scholarships. Soon, this movement was national news: players were wearing APU (All Players United) taped-wrist, the coach public congratulated the players’ courage, and universities across the nation waited to see what would happen to the nature of college sports. All seem to come to a head when in May of that same year, NLRB’s Chicago director ruled that players should be considered employees with collective bargaining rights.
But nothing happened.
During this ruling, Northwestern players were being bombarded with phone calls from former coaches, boosters, and alumnus saying the fight for unionization wasn’t worth it, would do more harm than good, and flat out threatened to cease their efforts or else. They said they players (Colter in particular) were “killing the program” and burning all the bridges the university and the football program provided them. And above everything, the NCAA powerhouse refuse to let up and give the Northwestern football players. Student-athletes were students first, and athletes second; nothing more, nothing less. In the end, the players appealed the regional director’s decision and declined jurisdiction; their reason: it “would not serve to promote stability in labor relations”.
Since then, the idea of paying student athletes has been silenced, but has never really gone away. In 2017, the NRLB again stated that “football players at private universities who compete at the NCAA’s highest level are employees and entitled to protection from unfair labor practices” (Solomon, 2017) but the NCAA pushed back on the general counsel’s remarks. Once again, the organization stated that student who participated in college athletics are in fact students, not employees. This year, the NCAA will make $771 million from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with coaches having an average salary of $3 million dollars (Demby & Gutierrez, 2018), and yet most people believe those student athletes—those who play in the games/tournament that will make almost a billion dollars—should NOT be paid.
There are many factors to be considered when talking about payment:
- Who gets paid, all sports or just revenue generating?
- How do we determine payment (salaries or increased stipends)?
- How do we justify payment between teams and players?
- Would players be considered state employees/how do we tax that?
These are only a few of the counter points made by critics who believe in the amateurism of college sports. Money is the main focus when we talk about paying college athletes mainly because we’re not really sure who would pay them. It’s no secret that universities around the country don’t have the money, and out of the thousand athletic departments, only 23 generate revenue; 7 actually make a profit ( (Staurowsky & Abney, 2014). According to the NCAA, the money generated from tournaments and bowl games go back to the universities and their respected conferences. The fact is, we don’t know where the money would come from, or how compensation would look like. For now, the ruling stays the same, even after cases like O’Bannon vs. NCAA over the players’ likeness used in a video game, college athletes are primarily students and the NCAA has complete control over their compensation and NIL (name, image, and likeness). At the moment, despite the gaining momentum of the idea of compensation for student-athletes, amateurism remains in college sports.
As for my own opinion, I have found myself in a unique position. I am a student who has been on both sides of the fences. A liberal arts major who has worked with student athletes during half of her college career. I’ve participated in interscholastic athletics and ultimately chose a different path for my high school and college education, but I’ve always kept some type of tie on athletics. That being said, I’ve often believed this matter to be clear cut: student athletes are students playing a sport for a university who are compensated in the form of scholarships. Unfortunately, my argument falters here because not all student athletes receive scholarships. Depending on the institution and the sport, stipends are given to the student-athletes during their time at the university. I had a hard time understanding how student athletes didn’t have enough to eat when they were allotted stipends for their sport participation, but when I became a graduate assistant, I started to understand their struggle.
As a graduate assistant, I’m given little over a thousand a month to live on, while only a portion of my graduate studies is paid for by the university. My total bills average around $950 a month, and that’s cutting every corner and saving every penny. When you’re only paid 9 months out of the year, still owe two thousand on your tuition, and are “highly discourage” from seeking another source of employment, college life can become extremely stressful. Add mandatory workouts, study hall hours, meetings, and practices into that mix you have complete chaos.
I’m not sure how we could do it, but I believe student athletes should receive higher compensation for their athletic participation on our sports teams. Maybe to get around the “employee” title, we could just increase the stipend for our student athletes while providing them with adequate health care during and maybe even after they leave the student-athlete realm. The NCAA has become a “Big Brother” type figure that seems unbeatable and all-knowing, but I believe due to recent scandals (North Carolina academic fraud and the Adidas scandal) the NCAA has lost faith of the general public. Fans of college sports are demanding change from the organization, and I think we could see some of that change start with student athletes compensation.
Until then, student-athletes are just broke college kids trying to make it work.
Demby, G., & Gutierrez, M. P. (2018, March 23). Why Shouldn’t We Pay Student-Athletes?Retrieved from NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2018/03/23/596132113/why-shouldnt-we-pay-student-athletes
Nocera, J., & Strauss, B. (2016, February 29). Fate of the Union: How Northwestern football union nearly came to be . Retrieved from Sports Illustrated: https://www.si.com/college-football/2016/02/24/northwestern-union-case-book-indentured
Solomon, J. (2017, Feburary 2). NLRB counsel: Football players at private FBS schools are employees. Retrieved from CBS sports: https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/nlrb-counsel-football-players-at-private-fbs-schools-are-employees/
Staurowsky, E. J., & Abney, R. (2014). Intercollegaite Athletics. In P. M. Pederson, & L. Thibault, Contemporary Sport Management 5th edition (pp. 192-213). Human Kinetics.
The Times Editorial Board. (2015, August 26). Why can’t college athletes unionize?Retrieved from Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-ncaa-20150826-story.html