College Athletes: Students or Employees?

This past Wednesday, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board made the decision that Northwestern football players will be able to unionize, considering them to be university employees. Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB regional director, named time commitment from players and scholarships tied directly to athletes’ performances as reasons for their ability to unionize.  This decision has, of course, sparked conversation across all sports and colleges around the nation, ultimately begging the question of whether or not student athletes should in fact be considered employees and earn a salary. There are several dimensions to each argument in the debate, none of which offer a clear cut answer as to what should be done.

           The primary argument in favor of paying players is obviously centered on money. It’s no secret that college sports bring in huge sums of money to schools and their conferences, not to mention sponsors and broadcasters. Look at March Madness. Turner Broadcasting makes over a billion dollars, especially with companies paying over $700,000 for 30 seconds of ad space during the Final Four. And that’s just for basketball. The NCAA makes about $6 billion dollars a year in total. That’s right, billion. Of course, we also have to consider how much each school makes when you combine ticket sales, donations, branding, playing in away games, and media rights. The University of Alabama brings in a total of $123, 769, 841 each year, with Texas, Ohio State and Florida not far behind. Even schools like University of Hawaii are bringing in revenue in the millions and they aren’t sporting starts like Johnny Manziel or bringing home National Championships in football, basketball, or baseball, which tend to be the most popular sports with the most media attention. People take these numbers and ask why students aren’t seeing a dime of it when they are the ones giving the performance that earns the money. Without them, there isn’t any revenue, right? But are they really not seeing any of it? As an out of state student, I know that tuition to Georgia is around 40k a year. That doesn’t include rent or meals or anything of that nature. Many athletes are receiving all of that (and more) for free. A lot of people would argue that’s compensation enough. UGA players were even reimbursed for meals they didn’t receive when dining halls shut down in February due to the snow storm. In addition to tuition, meals, and rent, athletes are also given access to medical treatment and highly experienced trainers, specialized tutoring, note-takers and the like. I wouldn’t call that nothing when it comes to the discussion of payment.  

            While this conversation about money cannot be ignored, I think there are many more questions that need to be given more attention in order to be realistic. In her Washington Post column, Sally Jenkins brings many of these to light. One question ask what sports would consider their players employees and worthy of a salary? Is it only football players at schools like Alabama? Only basketball players at Duke? Or does it include the volleyball program at Auburn and equestrian team at Georgia as well? Clearly some sports bring in more money than others, but can you only compensate those that bring in the most money? That would inevitably bring up the question of gender as well. Can females and males earn the same amount in their sports? In addition, do all players get paid equally no matter what their position is or how much fame they have? For example, would Todd Gurley and AJ McCarron be paid the same amount as a second string offensive lineman from Virginia Tech that no one outside of Blacksburg has hear of? Is there a minimum wage for every player, regardless of position, fame and talent? In addition, I think that naming players university employees forces them to comply with employee regulations, many of which warrant firing for sexual relations with students or being intoxicated at work. Would a player therefore be kicked off the team and out the school if he were to be involved with another student? Or, what if they showed up still tipsy from a party the night before? While these scenarios are a stretch, they still highlight more issues and unanswered questions surrounding the logistics of players as employees. Until someone can answer all of these questions, and more, I don’t see a feasible way to declare all college athletes employees and offer them salaries.

            99 percent of college athletes don’t make it to the professional level. So, that leaves them using the degree they earned (for free, I might add). Their sport pays for the education that in turn, pays for the rest of their lives. I firmly believe that that “student” portion of the term “student-athlete” comes first because it ought to be the first part addressed when an individual is on campus. Is that always the case? Of course not. But, when it comes down to it, if they weren’t attending classes in the morning, they wouldn’t be able to take the field or court each afternoon. Naming them employees completely nullifies this concept.

            Based on the student loans I’ve accumulated, I would gladly put on a jersey and play a sport I was good at in order to avoid paying back all the banks I’ve borrowed from, no further compensation necessary. But, with all this said, I think that schools, leagues, and unions alike all need to start answering questions before making further decisions.




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