Today, the concept of the collegiate student-athlete as the term implies — with “student” taking priority — is a myth.
Consequently, the traditional organization of collegiate athletics is being challenged in U.S. courts. The recurring theme throughout multiple lawsuits is that revenue-generating collegiate sports have become professional institutions, and need to treat their employees accordingly.
In a March suit filed against the NCAA and five major collegiate sports conferences, Cal football offensive lineman William Tyndall is one of four plaintiffs who allege that the NCAA and the conferences engage in anticompetitive price fixing by limiting the value of scholarships available to collegiate athletes. In another suit filed in July 2009 against the NCAA, former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon claims that collegiate athletes should be compensated for the usage of their image and likenesses. And on Wednesday, an official of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of football players from Northwestern University seeking the right to unionize.
Today, universities with a significant financial stake in the performance of their athletic teams demand an incredible amount from their athletes, who consequently are often unable to prioritize academics in favor of practices and games. Facets of collegiate athletics programs can include more than full-time hours, strict controls on students’ social lives by their coaches and disproportionate financial benefit for universities, college sports conferences and the NCAA. Yet college athletes have few of the protections and even less of the financial compensation than professional athletes do.
If it can withstand appeals, the decision that Northwestern football players are employees of their university and have the right to bargain collectively will be a crucial first step toward resolving some of the fundamental questions of fairness in collegiate athletics. By allowing college athletes to bargain collectively, the decision will empower them to influence the debate surrounding the multitude of other questions facing college athletics, like those of compensation, in their favor. Yet the decision is limited — for example, it only affects private universities, as public schools fall under the domain of state labor boards. Still, it will help accelerate what will likely be a lengthy, but necessary, process of reform.
Many of the issues facing the institution of collegiate athletics have no clear answer. But it is obvious that college athletes are — at least in the case of football and basketball — functionally employees of their universities. They deserve to be treated as such. If the institution of collegiate athletics is to remain in its current form, college athletes deserve to have a say in the conditions under which they play.