Athletes or Employees?

Many college athletes are now arguing that they’re being mistreated by their institutions and should be paid for their labor. Should they unionize?

Well they could, but that probably wouldn’t address the real problem. According to an article by Josh Eidelson at Salon:

For decades, the the National Collegiate Athletic Association has held that the players we watch in… this month’s March Madness, are “student-athletes,” part of a tradition older than the United States. The “Principle of Amateurism,” according to the NCAA’s Division I Manual, dictates that the participation of “student-athletes” is “an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.” But the enforcement of the amateur ideal has left some players questioning whether the association really has their best interests at heart.

In a forthcoming Buffalo Law Review article, Nick Fram and Thomas Frampton argue that many of these players have another avenue open to them: unionization. Most NCAA teams are at public universities, where unionization efforts would fall under the jurisdiction of state labor boards, not the National Labor Relations Board. While some state laws are to the right of the NLRB (some even ban public sector union recognition), others have been more pro-union than the federal agency. Fram and Frampton cite the example of university graduate students who receive stipends while serving as teaching assistants or researchers. Meanwhile, their counterparts at public universities have had union recognition in many states for decades.

Fram and Frampton have apparently found 14 states (including California, New York and Florida) where athletes would have a good argument for a union election.

It’s sort of unlikely anything will come of this. But it’s certainly an interesting point.

If America’s college athletes were really to try to unionize, or even strike–as collegiate athletes apparently considered doing during the basketball playoffs back in 1995–this might force the country to have an important discussion about sports and where universities place their priorities.

NCAA rules stipulate that Division I athletes are not to spend more than 20 hours a week on athletics. But in truth the average men’s basketball player spends about 39 hours a week playing basketball. Many athletes, particularly those in prominent athletic programs, work very hard for their schools, and essentially do have full-time jobs.

Why is it that the compensation is the problem? Shouldn’t the 39 hours be the problem?

Student athletes might be able to persuasively argue that they’re working for the university, but paying the players won’t address the real problem, which is that these athletes are, in many cases, barely students at all.

If someone is being exploited he has essentially two options. The first, and in many ways more convenient choice, is to demand to be better paid for all his hard work. The other choice is to stop working so hard.

If the country were forced to address this issue publicly, it would be difficult for universities explain convincingly what their athletes were for, and what they expected out of them.

Paying athletes might be technically fair (how much should they earn, by the way?), but it wouldn’t be good for education. If you’re already paying them, the education seems even more incidental. Call me naive, but if we’re considering reform, isn’t it important to remember that education is supposed to be the point?

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer