Northwestern University’s football team has announced plans to unionize. After so much discussion about whether or not to pay college athletes, this might be the future of college sports. And that might be a very, very good thing.

According to an Associated Press piece:

Calling the NCAA a dictatorship, Northwestern’s quarterback and the United Steelworkers announced plans Tuesday to form the first labor union for college athletes — the latest salvo in the bruising fight over whether amateur players should be paid.

Colter said the NCAA dictates terms to its hundreds of member schools and tens of thousands of college athletes, leaving players with little or no say about financial compensation questions or how to improve their own safety. That college football generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue only bolstered the argument for a union, he said.


I’ve been critical about the idea of paying college athletes, largely because most college sports teams don’t generate any profit. It seemed to me that that if we’re treating our football and basketball players like employees and finding that we’ve got a problem in American colleges, we try just treating them like regular students again.

But maybe it’s simpler. Northwestern’s football team has figured out something generations of workers have known: waiting around for your boss to realize what you “deserve” and you’ll be waiting forever.

Ultimately, who cares what the NCAA determines is “fair”? Labor organization could dramatically change how college athletes are treated.

It doesn’t perhaps matter so much whether journalists or pundits or the NCAA thinks college athletes should get salaries. By unionizing they are declaring themselves to be employees. And if this effort is successful their colleges (because surely this won’t stop at Northwestern) and the NCAA will have to treat them as such, or radically change the role of college sports on campus.

And that’s what unionizing does, it forces management to acknowledge the interest of labor. And whatever the problems are with college athletics, it’s getting increasingly hard to maintain that varsity college athletes (at least at a few major schools) are aren’t working for their schools. [Image via]

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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