College football teams forming an employee union? Now I’ve seen everything. It sounds farfetched, but unionize they shall. After a shocking ruling by the National Labor Review Board (NLRB), football players at Northwestern University have been granted employee status, meaning they have every right to form a union. The life of a college athlete can’t be so bad that they need to seek union representation, so what gives?
First of all, Northwestern University football players, like many other student athletes, dedicate upwards of 40-50 hours per week to their sport, meaning these guys are already working overtime before you even start counting their credit hours.
Secondly, playing sports for a Division I school like Northwestern provides a valuable service to the institution. Football games are entertaining for students, faculty, and the community at large, and a strong athletic program is often enticing prospective students. Ergo, athletes’ participation in sports generates revenue for their school.
Thirdly, the school does technically pay them. For the services they provide, athletes are compensated in the form of athletic scholarships and grants - the “pay” for the work of the “employees.” While these funds are not exactly ‘real’ currency in the sense that they are only intended for the purposes of earning an education, it still counts and was enough to convince the NLRB.
What does this mean?
Many are concerned that considering college athletics to be a “profession” will diminish its value as a student enrichment program as well as entertainment. There is an undeniable difference between college and professional sports, and some attribute that to the spirited nature of student athletes who are presumably playing because they want to and not just for pay. Will this latest ruling change all that?
It’s too soon to know whether other college sports programs will follow Northwestern’s lead on this one. Only time will tell what this means for the future of college athletics.