The union organizing at Northwestern University has a lot of people up in arms. To recap, the football players at Northwestern University want to form a union. They claim that they are employees of the university. They receive compensation for their play on the field in the form of scholarships. The generally work 40-60 per week at their trade, plus go to school. They are under the control of or monitored by, the coaching staff, and school administrators. These are policies that they have to follow – social media policy, maintaining certain weight, going to class, staying above a certain GPA level.
In order to gain status as “employees” of the university, the players had to show the NLRB they meet these requirements. The Chicago office of the NLRB ruled that they did meet these requirements, and thus were entitled to form their union. To coin a phrase “all holy hell broke out” after the decision.
Sen. Lamar Alexander said, “Imagine a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet 16 game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food and no classes before 11 a.m.” He added, “This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.” A lot of others cried that the players were simply trying to get high salaries for playing at the university. Some of these may sound reasonable, but let’s look at what the players are asking for.
There are three major areas of concern for the players:
No. 1 is medical protections … extending past the end of a player’s eligibility …
No. 2 is to see concussion reform. Concussion prevention and concussion research in the NCAA, and these schools making great strides to protect these players’ brains.
No. 3 is extended academic support. If you only play three or four years because you didn’t red-shirt, you’re not going to have the opportunity to have one year of your grad school paid for like you would if you did red-shirt.
There are a lot of things that the general public does not know about how these athletic scholarships work. For one, each scholarship is for one year. That means the university can pull the scholarship from an athlete for a number of reasons. For example, if a player has a career ending injury, the university can pull that person’s scholarship. Even though he suffered the injury at the university.
Once a player leaves school, any residual effects from injuries are no longer covered by medical insurance. If a player receives concussions while playing for a university, there is no medical insurance for lingering effects of those concussions. It is up to the player to pay for any medical expenses he endures as a result of these concussions.
Scholarships do not cover the entire cost of attending college. There are a lot of expenses that are required by the university during each semester that scholarships do not cover. These are paid by the student-athlete out-of-pocket. Since many athletes, both black and white, are from poor families, this creates a burden on them and their families.
Naturally, this situation is going to take a lot of time to settle. Northwestern University and the NCAA are fighting this ruling. The next stop will be at the NLRB in D.C. If either side does not get what they want, it will probably go the route of the courts. Maybe even to the Supreme Court.
This whole scenario does serve as a looking-glass on the rest of society. These students are demanding that they have a voice at the table concerning their education, their workplace conditions, and future. They know full well that only about 50% of their fellow student-athletes in D1 sports actually graduate from college. They also know that 99% of all student-athletes never get to the professional level. They also know that once their playing days are over, they are abandoned by the university in terms of health coverage for lingering injuries going forward.
I would think that if Northwestern University would actually approve this ruling, and support their athletes, it would give them a tremendous edge in recruiting new players. What player would not pick a university that supports its players in the fashion the current players are demanding? Though I cannot believe that the NCAA wouldn’t find some way to discipline the university if they did support the ruling.
Only time will tell how this plays out. I can see changes in the “student-athlete” status coming no matter who wins. The NCAA is not the most popular organization around. Whether the Northwestern University football players ultimately win or lose, it should at least bring about meaningful changes to the NCAA. No matter where you stand on this issue, we should all applaud these players for having the courage to stand up for their rights.