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Should College Athletes Be Able to Unionize?

In a ruling that could revolutionize college athletics, a federal agency ruled Wednesday that college football players at Northwestern University can unionize. The decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board means it agrees football players at the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can create the nation’s first college athlete’s union.

But some totally disagree.

Giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize, critics have argued, could hurt college sports in numerous ways—including by raising the prospects of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments. “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students,’ the university said. “Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.

I’d like to hear what you think about the problem this poses.

I believe the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, college sports have turned into a big money business. It’s true—universities are benefiting from the talented athletes who play revenue-generating sports, like football or basketball. On the other hand, however, so many involved in this case seem to have forgotten why schools even have athletic teams. Sports actually allow many athletes to get a degree, and hope for a career that comes only from an educated worker.

From time to time, athletic department staff will tell me that some athletes will even ask them, “Why do I have to go to class? I came here to play ball.” It is this question that clearly reveals we’ve gotten our priorities mixed up. Pardon me—but it is the class that actually allows a student to play ball, not vice versa.

But that’s not how many see it. Kain Colter, Northwestern’s outgoing quarterback, said, “a player’s performance on the field was more important to Northwestern than their in-class performance. You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics.” When asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: “To play football. To perform an athletic service.”

If this union idea catches on, players from all sorts of NCAA programs could join a players union. At first, it might appear to be a wonderful “justice” to the talented young men and women who work hard to play Division 1 intercollegiate athletics. However, if this union follows the path of so many others in history, we will soon see lockouts, negotiating for more money, a “free agent” attitude in many and a disdain for the courses that get in the way of their sport. In short, you’ll have the very mindset you hate in pro sports—rich players who don’t play for the love of the game but for the rewards they receive.

Let’s have a conversation. Tell me what you think are the pros and cons of this decision at Northwestern to “unionize” athletes?


  1. Michael Popp on March 28, 2014 at 7:26 am

    I think this union will close the gap from childhood to adult in an age when Dr. Elmore is pointing out that our children are less prepared for this world then ever. The first time a “poor” athlete can’t pay taxes on his income/”scholarship,” and is arrested for tax evasion, we’ll see the outrage by these same “students” who want to unionize.

    I only see this as a good idea for the top one or two percent, the same ones who usually end up going on to play pro sports anyway. I think it will hurt far more people, and shut the door on many other sports (also taking with it more scholarship opportunities), then those who will benefit. Time will tell…

  2. Alex on March 28, 2014 at 7:52 am

    I think youth look at sports in what it can do for them versus how they can serve and honor the sport they are competing in. People look at sports as say “what can I get out of it” (scholarship, money, fame) versus “what can I do to honor and serve the game.” When I played high level sports I never did it for what I could get out of it. I did it because I love the game and competing. I honored the game and in doing so it gave me many things in return (life lessons, scholarship, notoriety).

    This is just a reflection of that mentality and it will be a negative. These athletes will never be legends of the game because they are not chasing excellence in sport, instead they are chasing other things.

  3. FifthGrade Misch on March 28, 2014 at 8:34 am

    The idea that the focus of these students is only on the sport and hardly on the education is disheartening. We live near the University of Notre Dame, where like Northwestern, student athletes get degrees from a top notch university for free (I assume) while playing football. Other sport student athletes receive these opportunities at a reduced rate.

    Regularly I support 5th graders, particularly boys, in seeing options other than the big future of being a professional athlete. They get to think about what other gifts God has given them. Last year it was the smallest boy in my room who even planned to follow the college steps of his NFL hero, this year my MLB fanatic. Through class projects these boys realized ” I just might want to be an engineer, or an attorney,” they had ALWAYS said they were going to be pro athletes. Even in our small community where we currently have 3 graduates who are playing sports professionally (1 NFL & 2 MLB- yes we are proud of these gentlemen), the idea that these 5th graders of mine will play sports professionally because they LIKE it, is highly unlikely. Never squashing dreams but giving opportunities they have never had before; to try those jobs that for the skills they are so amazing at.

    As a teacher, I am disheartened by the unionizing. Those students are still STUDENTS who need guidance I don’t believe they are ready for all that will come with these adult responsibilities. It scares me that they will be taken advantage of by adults (parents, “agents”) who capatilize on their young experience.

    What will come next, high school student athletes wanting a portion of ticket sales? EDUCATION is what comes first, not sports. Sports is a great opportunity, not a right. Some students are privileged enough to have athletic gifts, some music, some art, others science; but what surrounds our children needs to be that love of learning new things, pride in work, and relationships with others is what is most valued, not fame and fortune.

    Do we do this to our kids, especially boys, when all we do is talking about them playing defensive end at Notre Dame when he is 4 years old instead of filling them with all sorts of dreams and possibilities of going to great schools because they are smart and have son much to offer the world?

    • David on March 28, 2014 at 9:00 am

      Just wondering if collegiate athletes are unionized what it will do to Title IX advancements. Most female teams are funded by football and men’s basketball. If all athletes become employees will universities still sponsor women’s teams? Title IX “forces” many schools to fund these opportunities for females. How will Title IX advancements be impacted if students become employees? Do schools need to provide equal opportunities to employees of both genders?

      It would be a shame if opportunities for non-football athletes are diminished if the unionization takes place.

  4. 1217chavez on March 28, 2014 at 9:27 am

    The fact is millions of dollars are made off of many student-athletes at many universities. These dollars are not only used to improve athletic facilities around campus but all facilities. These student-athletes are essentially walking billboards, the idea that they see none of this revenue is simply wrong.

    However, we must acknowledge the fact that this is an extremely complicated issue. Most of the money is made off of football and basketball programs. Do we only pay the student-athletes of those programs? I say no. Does a cross-country runner not work just as hard and dedicate just much as of his or her time as a football player? I say indeed, but do they generate money for the university like football player might, obviously not.

    Here is what I propose: All D1 athletes receive a fair and equitable living wage but freshman will start out with a lower pay scale and then each year it will increase according to their year in school. For example freshman might receive $10,000, sophomores $15,000, juniors $20,000 and seniors $30,000. Now their is an incentive to stay in school longer and hopefully finish their degrees, rather than coming for a year or two and then bolting for the NFL or NBA. Granted $30,000 dollars does not compete with a million but maybe it will at least encourage them to re-think their future plans.

    Last if there were some type of bonuses awarded for meeting not athletic goals but academic goals, that may also be encouraging to student-athletes to perform well not only in athletics but more importantly in academics. Don’t get me wrong this plan, I’m sure also has many holes in it, but the fact remains within the next 10 years college athletes are going to get paid. I hope though that it could be done in a way that does not entirely compromise the integrity of college athletics.

    • tsh on March 28, 2014 at 11:05 am

      Consider that if an athlete is receiving a full scholarship at a school that costs say $32,000 per year to attend. They would have to work 40hrs per week for 50 weeks making 16 per hour as a non-college graduate and have no taxes removed just to cover that cost… and have to go to school full time on top of that! They get to travel on the college’s dime, get specialized academic support, come out of school debt free in return for continuing to play the sport that they love at the highest level that most will ever achieve! A very small percentage go on to be professionals even in football and basketball. The vast majority of sports operate at a net loss. Yes, the schools are building great facilities and coaches and others are making money but these facilities are being built to attract and serve athletes and the coaches are paid to train athletes at the highest level possible. So, yes indeed the players as athletes are seeing great benefits from all of this money in the facilities and training that they have access to as athletes. ON top of that, they are receiving a free education! They would have to flip a lot of burgers to make the amount of money they would need to otherwise pay for their education. (As for perspective, I was a walk-on DI athlete and have 2 children who are DI athletes, one a scholarship athlete. All in “non-revenue” sports.)

      • 1217chavez on March 28, 2014 at 12:09 pm

        At many universities college athletics is big business. As I am sure you are aware, we are not talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, we are talking millions and for some big football schools, tens of millions of dollars.The NCAA has overloaded college athletes with so many regulations, that often times if they are in violation they may not even know it. Yes they may receive their full tuition, room and board and books for free but as we know, often times life presents us with circumstances beyond our control that require us to have some type of income stream. For a college athlete coming from a stable home life, mom and dad maybe able to provide a few extra dollars but for those coming from poverty, what do they do? Even if they had the time they would be in violation if they sought employment.

        Just seems so unfair that an English major, attending the university on a full academic scholarship could write a book and receive royalties from their work but a college athlete whose jersey is being sold at the bookstore or whose likeness is being used for a video game gets no financial reward.

        I wish we could turn back time, before the shoe contracts, television contracts, video games etc., but I believe the time has come that we can no longer ignore the fact that college athletes are soon going to be paid and we must instead search for ways to do it in a fair and equitable manner so that not only football players and basketball players get what they deserve but all college athletes, male and female alike.

        • tsh on March 28, 2014 at 12:45 pm

          College athletes are permitted to work, even those on scholarship. Many make extra money working summer camps in their sport. There are restrictions and they must make an amount that is in line with the expected and reasonable compensation for the work that they are doing. (ie can’t make $30,000 by washing cars for an hour a week for a big booster’s car dealership!). Room and board is included in a full scholarship along with tuition, books, fees etc. There are some but not a lot of uncovered expense. Working in season is not really a viable option, but their are ways that they can make money within NCAA guidelines.

          The money that comes in gets invested in building first class facilities and hiring the best possible coaches (yes some get paid quite a bit!). The athletes in turn derive a TREMENDOUS benefit by receiving training in some of the best facilities and from some of the best coaching at the highest level that they will ever experience in their life. Most college athletes are playing because they want to push themselves and excel at the highest level of their sport. Most in reality as stated below play in front of very small crowds and if they were paid in line with the income that their sport produces for the school… they would owe the school money!

          I do not disagree however with the notion of players being able to somehow profit from the use of their name or image just as a musician, writer or other “performer” may be able.

    • kristajomiller on March 28, 2014 at 12:07 pm


      My husband and I are university professors in the performing arts. We also love sports and are supportive of athletic activity in the university environment. Athletics has the ability to teach wonderful life-skills to those involved and breeds a sense of community among employees, students, and alumni of the university. We both are alums of a D1 school will a renowned football program. We’re fans.

      Like athletics, our performing arts programs put out a “product” for public consumption which provides a community and public relations service to the university (theatre productions, music concerts, etc.; my husband’s choir even travels to other cities and states on our region to promote goodwill for the university). In both our programs, students put in a tremendous number of hours beyond the classroom to make these events happen, enough hours that it can be difficult holding down an outside job. While we feel blessed to have always taught at institutions which support us with some scholarship funding for these students, performing arts students do not traditionally receive anywhere near the level of scholarship monies student-athletes receive (during my time at that DI school, the average theatre scholarship was $2000 dollars a year. And that was more than many university theatre programs award. Often, universities award no scholarship monies to theatre students).

      You mention that the majority of collegiate athletics don’t generate a profit for the institution. Neither do our programs. (But I guarantee our programs are attended by more people annually than some of the smaller athletic programs.) So, according to your logic, our performing arts students should be entitled to the same compensation that athletes are entitled to.

      In the interest of intellectual honesty, I must say that I consider our “product” to exist not solely for the benefit of the university, but as a part of the curriculum for students; there are pedagogical reasons we do this (the goodwill travel being perhaps the exclusion to that statement). That could make a difference in the perception of how these students could be compensated. But this news has me thinking a lot: what about the non-majors that participate in theatre? I have typically scholarshipped non-majors as well as majors because I believe there is value in the non-major’s participation in the performing arts. But will they see it that way? It is still considered curricular for them, especially once they have fulfilled whatever fine arts requirement might be part of the General Education curriculum?

      I, along with many of the other commenters here, think this will have damaging ripple effects. I do not believe that schools will continue the smaller sports. So this insistence by football players will result in many other students perhaps losing an opportunity to attend college. If it has the “trickle-down” effect which it could to our programs, our programs will be cut rather than pay students to participate. And the loss to the university and community would be devastating.

      I am also concerned about the entitlement. We deal a little bit with that in our programs already simply because of this generation (which is why I am a fan of Growing Leaders; it gives me great tools to address these issues with my students), but this could exacerbate what already exists. I fight hard to teach my students that they must do this because they love it, and – as others have stated – because of what they can give to it and the community, not because of what they can get out of it. Most of them will never reach the levels of fame and fortune possible in this business (like most athletes), so if they do not develop a love for the work itself rather than simply the rewards, they will lead a miserable life, and most likely will not last.

      Finally, I am a huge proponent of scholarships for athletes and performing artists. They DO put in a tremendous amount of work that DOES have benefit to the university. I want to honor their time and effort by making it a little bit easier to graduate without a high level of load debt. But this conversation is being driven by a small group of people who occupy rarified air, and who (as another reader noted) are too young and experienced in life to understand the far-reaching implications this will have.

  5. 1217chavez on March 28, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    A couple of interviews with Jay Bilas, former Duke basketball player and now an ESPN analyst:

    • Tim Elmore on March 31, 2014 at 1:25 pm

      Thank you for sharing! Bilas makes some great arguments for paying athletes.

  6. tsh on March 28, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    This is a very informative primer on college athletics operating income and expenses.
    Here is a particularly interesting quote from Chapter 2. The programs being referenced are the “Big Time” sports schools – DI FBS schools.

    “With few exceptions, however, reported operating surpluses from the two marquee sports were not enough to cover the costs of an athletic department’s other sports offerings, whether it be 14 or 24 squads. The myth of the business model – that football and men’s basketball cover their own expenses and fully support non-revenue sports – is put to rest by an NCAA study finding that 93 institutions ran a deficit for the 2007-08 school year, averaging losses of $9.9 million. That was more than twice as large as the average net revenue ($3.9 million) for the 25 programs that reported an operating surplus in 2008.”

    • Kurt Earl on April 5, 2014 at 5:10 am

      These are the facts no one is talking about. Revenue is different than profit! At the end of the day the vast majority of athletic dept. in the NCAA simply aren’t generating a profit and therefore do not have the money the pay their athletes. In most cases, paying the athletes would place the burden on the tax payers.

  7. Ken on March 28, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    When I go into schools to mentor students about careers and help them figure out where there gifting is I share the real life stats of becoming a pro athlete. Only .01% will ever make it to the big leagues, that means that the other 99.99% will be professional workers and that they will need some other type of work skill or education! And if they still do not believe me, I share with them my top ten list of Heisman trophy winners that never made it in the NFL.

    • Tim Elmore on March 31, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      Thanks Ken for sharing! Those are some great realities any student-athlete needs to wrestle with.

  8. High Traffic Wealth on April 3, 2014 at 5:58 am

    Thanks for the high quality info !!

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Should College Athletes Be Able to Unionize?