WASHINGTON, D.C. | May 9, 2014 -
College sports have become a favored pastime for millions of Americans. Whether filling out a tournament bracket, tailgating on a Saturday afternoon, or simply cheering on an alma mater, for many fans, college sports is a way to spend time with loved ones and stay connected with old friends.
Where fans are known for their loyalty, student athletes are renowned for their passion and talent and look to leverage their athletic ability in pursuit of different dreams. For some, competing at the collegiate level is a step toward a career in professional sports. For others – in fact, for most student athletes – playing a college sport is a ticket to an education they simply couldn’t access without an athletic scholarship.
Regardless of why student athletes play, their dreams can be turned upside down by a sports-related injury. When that happens, institutions must step up and provide the health care and academic support the student needs. Most institutions are doing just that and standing by their athletes for the long-haul, but some are not. No student athlete injured while representing their school on the field should be left behind because of the misplaced priorities of a college or university.
Can the NCAA and institutions do more to protect students? Absolutely. They could start by giving students a greater role in shaping policies that govern college athletics. They could also work to help ensure a sports injury doesn’t end a student’s academic career and find a responsible solution that will deliver the health care injured players may need. While promoting change is often difficult, student athletes deserve a determined effort to address these concerns.
Does that mean unionizing student athletes is the answer? Absolutely not. When he signed the National Labor Relations Act, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, “A better relationship between labor and management is the high purpose of this Act.” It’s hard to imagine President Roosevelt thought the law would one day apply to the relationship between student athletes and academic institutions, yet that is precisely where we are.
A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled football players at Northwestern University are “employees” of the school for the purpose of collective bargaining. The ballots cast in an April 25th election have been impounded pending review by the full board. Given the track record of the Obama NLRB, I suspect the board will rubber stamp the regional director’s decision, setting a dangerous precedent for colleges and universities nationwide. In the meantime, schools, athletic organizations, students, and the public are searching for answers to countless questions stemming from this unprecedented ruling.
For example, what issues would a union representing college athletes raise at the bargaining table? Would a union negotiate over the number and length of practices? Perhaps the union would seek to bargain over the number of games. If management and the union are at an impasse, would players go on strike? Would student athletes on strike attend class and have access to financial aid?
How would student athletes provide financial support to the union? Would dues be deducted from scholarships before being disbursed to students? Or are students expected to pay out of pocket? We know many student athletes struggle financially. How will they shoulder the cost of joining a union?
Speaking of costs, where will smaller colleges and universities find the resources to manage labor relations with student athletes? A lot of institutions operate on thin margins and college costs are soaring. Are these schools ready to make some difficult decisions, such as cutting support to other athletic programs like lacrosse and field hockey, or even raising tuition?
And finally, how will other NLRB policies affect our higher education system? Are college campuses prepared for micro-unions and ambush elections? Are administrators equipped to bargain with competing unions representing different athletic programs? Will students be able to make an informed decision about joining a union in as few as 10 days, while attending class and going to practice?
These are tough questions that should be discussed before students and administrators are forced to confront a radical departure from long-standing policies. We share the concerns of players that progress is too slow, but forming a union is not the answer; treating student athletes as something they are not is not the answer.
The challenges facing student athletes should be addressed in a way that protects the athletic and academic integrity of higher education. The recent NLRB decision takes a fundamentally different approach that could make it harder for some students to access a quality education. I strongly urge the Obama board to change course and encourage key stakeholders to get to work.
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