When an NLRB director in Illinois made the decision last year to allow student athletes at Northwestern University to organize as a union it raised a lot of eyebrows. (How does one organize the labor of people who don’t get paid?) But that question has now been effectively scrapped as the full NLRB has said no to the proposal.
The National Labor Relations Board on Monday overturned a historic ruling that gave Northwestern University football players the go-head to form the nation’s first college athletes’ union, saying the prospect of union and non-union teams could throw off the competitive balance in college football.
The decision throws out a March 2014 ruling by a regional NLRB director in Chicago who said that college the football players are effectively school employees and entitled to organize. Monday’s decision did not directly address the question of whether football players are employees.
The labor dispute goes to the heart of American college sports, where universities and conferences reap billions of dollars, mostly through broadcast contracts, by relying on amateurs who are not paid. In other countries, college sports are small-time club affairs, while elite youth athletes often turn pro as teens.
From the beginning of this brouhaha I’ve felt that this was a solution in search of a problem. It seems to me that we either have to jointly decide that college athletes are amateurs or they are professionals. It’s a distinction which applies outside of colleges as well, and you can still compete in other sports at the highest levels while retaining amateur status. (The US Open in golf, for example. Also, almost all boxers start out as amateurs for a while before they can take their first professional fight.) If they are amateurs then they need to put in their time until they can turn pro. But if we are to treat college athletes as professionals who are owed some sort of compensation – particularly the football and basketball players – then the entire idea of this being a “side activity” in support of their education pretty much goes out the window.
But at the same time, it’s getting rather hard to ignore the hypocrisy inherent in the system. We’ve seen far too many stories about student athletes who graduate and receive a degree and some of them can barely read. This is something of an embarrassment for those who wind up in the NBA or the NFL, but it’s an absolute disaster for the kids who can’t make the cut and find themselves out on the streets with a sheepskin, but no skills and no ability to get a decent job outside of sports. Still, it seems like setting them up with some cash while supposedly being amateurs working on their studies compounds the problem rather than confronting it.
One last point to note is the reaction of the NLRB themselves. If they say no to unionizing somebody… it must be a really bad idea.