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Patrick Hruby

Unionized Football Teams?

The Atlantic Sports Roundtable on Northwestern Football and the future of college sports

The Atlantic online

In the latest Atlantic Sports Roundtable, we break down Northwestern University football team's petition to unionize -- which raises thorny questions about the future of college sports.

Jake Simpson: ... the NCAA, the Big Ten, and probably Northwestern itself will come out strongly against the move, and what begins as an NLRB battle will likely end up in federal court. (The NCAA, for its part, has already issued a statement; according to David Remy, the NCAA’s Chief Legal Officer, “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.”) But in an era where the NCAA's rampant hypocrisy and the laughable myth of the "student-athlete" has fallen under increasing scrutiny (thanks in large part to the gargantuan $5.15 billion in annual athletic department revenues from the five so-called power conferences alone), the Northwestern players' step could be the first Jenga piece to come out of the college-athlete amateurism farce ...

Hampton Stevens: ... assuming a union is successfully established, the “student-athlete” would legally become an “employee,” and thus would be entitled to the same protections and rights as any other employee in these United States. Foremost among those rights, obviously, is being paid a fair wage.

That new right would open up thorny questions. How, for instance, would those in charge go about splitting the money? Should players at Alabama and Texas get paid more because their programs generate more revenue? Would starters get paid more than benchwarmers, or does everyone on the roster deserve the same rate? Should a player's pay be based on performance year-to-year? After all, if college athletes want the benefits of professionalism, they must also expect the drawbacks—like losing salary because of sub-par performance.

What about basketball players, who similarly produce big bucks for everyone but themselves? Don't they deserve a union, too? What about sports that don't produce revenue? Surely swimmers and volleyball players should also have their scholarships protected. And let's not even get started on the Title IX implications. The legal requirement for gender equality adds yet another layer of bewildering complexity ...

Patrick Hruby: ... the unionization of college athletes—the overdue legal recognition that young men and women who sweat and toil in gyms and on fields for price-fixed scholarships are, in fact, employees, performing labor for compensation, which last I checked is nothing to be ashamed of—would be irrevocably alter the college sports landscape, much like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thorniness would most certainly ensue.

(Speaking of which, here's a quick and novel answer to Hampton's questions: Let a free market figure things out, the same way we do for university employees who aren't athlete-entertainers).

And that thorniness would be good. Healthy, even. Empowered athletes would get to ask and answer those questions, acting as partners instead of serfs.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: Too often, the debate over the college sports economy begins and ends with cold, hard cash. On one side: Schools are making billions of dollars from big-time sports. Why can't Johnny Manziel get a cut, or at least make money off his autograph? On the other: Tuition isn't cheap. Athletes get to play sports they love. Why is anyone complaining? I would kill for that deal! All of this misses the point, a point unionization would finally address. The fundamental problem with amateurism isn't the terms of the deal. It's the terms of the dealing ...

Read the full article at The Atlantic online