So it's not surprising that I didn't pay a lot of attention to the story that broke last week, when, to quote the New York Times' Ben Strauss and Steve Eder, "A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that a group of Northwestern football players were employees of the university and have the right to form a union and bargain collectively." (Full disclosure: the university whose business school I attended, and whose football game I therefore watched, was Northwestern, and I still didn't pay much attention to the story.) The full article is here, but pretty much every news outlet carried a version of the story; the NLRB decision can be found here.
I saw the headlines, and thought, College sports is a huge business and of course these players are employees, and of course they should be able to unionize, and if they can wrest some money and control away from the NCAA and the universities, more power to 'em.
The schools and the NCAA insist that these are "student-athletes" who receive a valuable education in exchange for their football prowess. Northwestern in particular points to its exceptionally high graduation rate (97%, the highest rate among top-tier college athletics programs) to "prove" that these are indeed students as well as athletes. But only the schools and the NCAA appear to have been taken in by that analysis.
The rest of us have seen the hours that players spend on the field and in the weight rooms (the NLRB director estimated that Northwestern's football players spend 40 to 50 hours a week on football, which sounds a lot like a fulltime job to me). Strauss and Eder note that "Kain Colter, a former Northwestern quarterback and the face of the movement [to recognize athletes as employees], testified that he was steered away from difficult science classes and denied his dream of pursuing a career as a doctor."
The decision is being appealed, and a final ruling is probably months away.
But today I came across a brief piece by Matt Bruenig in Salon, which revived a two-year suggestion from Ralph Nader: Eliminate athletic scholarships altogether (Nader's "League of Fans" proposal, from 2011, can be found here).
According to the League of Fans' senior issues analyst,
Athletic scholarships are financial inducements to play sports at college. Basically, they are one-year contracts between an athlete and a coach. Coaches can literally fire athletes for poor performance or injury. As such, a scholarship athlete’s first priority in college is to play sports. Education is a secondary consideration. Paying for young people to come to college campuses to focus on sports — not education — is perverse.
I won't argue with that. And to those who claim that sports is an important "way out" for "students" who would not otherwise get a chance to get a good education or try out for the National Football League, I'd note that (a) with 40-50 hours a week devoted to football, there's not a lot of time left for getting to class, reading assignments, writing papers, meeting with faculty advisors, etc., and (b) only about 2% of college players get drafted into the NFL. Those are worse odds than Vegas.
Take that football scholarship money and use it for needs-based academic scholarships. And then maybe universities can focus on what they're designed to do: educate.