by Liam Duncan
Amid growing accusations of collegiate student-athletes receiving improper benefits and undeserved good grades, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was dealt another serious blow. On March 26, the Chicago Office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are employees of the university who have a right to unionize to fight for improvements in healthcare services, larger scholarships and more benefits.
The decision came after Northwestern scholarship football players organized under the banner of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA)—they successfully argued that while college athletes can be compensated through scholarships, they are not adequately reimbursed for the enormous profits that schools and the NCAA make based on the players’ labor. Indeed, CAPA argued that even with the scholarships provided by universities, student-athletes are still expected to pay an average of over $3,000 a year for school supplies and transportation costs not covered by scholarships.
While the NCAA and Northwestern University have both filed appeals against the NLRB decision in favor of unionization, many scholarship athletes across the country remain uncertain about the future of college athleticism. Many former collegiate athletes and supporters of the unionization are calling for a free-market system in which student-athletes will be paid salaries based on their individual on-field performances. Additionally, many union officials see great potential for future student-athlete unionization around the nation, especially in union-friendly states such as California and Michigan.
However, CAPA representatives and conservative supporters of the campaign, such as Boston College sports law professor Bill Zola, are simply urging the NCAA to offer players stipends to “close the full cost-of-attendance gap,” amounting to approximately $5,000. If such a system were to be put in place, it would provide student-athletes the money to offset expenses not covered by scholarships, while also allowing them to retain their status as amateurs.
Though it is still unclear exactly what these unions may demand from their respective universities and from the NCAA in regards to athlete compensation, it is clear that the definition of amateurism in collegiate athletics is undergoing drastic changes. Indeed, with the potential collective-bargaining power of future student-athlete unions growing stronger by the day, it is becoming apparent that amateur collegiate athletes may soon become a thing of the past.
Perhaps the NCAA’s greatest concern at this point is the threat of having to pay all student-athletes under Title IX, a regulation that requires all of a university’s athletic programs to receive equal support, regardless of how much money a particular program might earn. While the implications of Title IX on Northwestern student-athletes’ unionization have yet to be explored in-depth, Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel believes that the potential cost of paying every single student athlete may motivate many major universities to simply shut down their entire athletic departments in order to save the school millions of dollars. In turn, such a move could dramatically alter the landscape of college athletics, with many sportswriters seeing the potential shutdown of major athletic programs as the first step in the ultimate demise of college sports in general.
Regardless of the potential costs to universities in the future of college athletics, the NLRB’s decision to allow Northwestern’s student-athletes to unionize seems to have sent one clear message to the NCAA: collegiate athletes are tired of seeing themselves as being underpaid and exploited by the powers-that-be, and they are ready to organize and fight for the right to adequate compensation for their labor.