But are they like employees with the right to unionize?
The world pretended the Olympics were for amateurs long after it became obvious that some countries gave their participants a state-funded free pass for life. At least we’ve turned that corner – hail the Dream Team! – and can now focus on just what the games do mean. Writes Will Braun: “The goal of ‘Olympian,’ says the Olympic Charter, is to ‘contribute to building a peaceful and better world.’ Who could argue? But what does ski jumping have to do with a better world? How is a fist-pumping, adulated athlete at the bottom if a snowy half pipe contributing to peace?”
Are we nearing a similar turning point in our attitudes about college athletics? Perhaps. In a move that seemed to stun the sports world, regional National Labor Relations Board director Peter Sung Ohr ruled this week that Northwestern University football players have the right to unionize. Their scholarships are compensation, he said, and they have to closely follow set rules, so the coaches are their bosses, and they are technically employees.
There is a long way to go before this ruling can have a concrete, real-world impact. For one thing, the national NLRB hasn’t ruled and this decision will certainly be appealed. For another, it applies only to private schools such as Northwestern – so far, the NLRB has no jurisdiction over public universities. And up to now, the College Athletes Players Association isn’t asking for salaries but for things like better medical care.
But perhaps the ruling can set off a new debate that does not include the fiction that college athletes are just amateurs as a part of being primarily students seeking a good education. Football and basketball players are mostly members of farm teams hoping for a shot at the majors.
Exactly what the players are is a matter of debate.
Some see them as victims. “March madness,” says a Reno Gazette-Journal editorial, is a “three-week orgy of big-time basketball that rakes in millions of dollars on the backs – and Achilles tendons – of young athletes for the entertainment of more sedentary Americans.”
Some see them as privileged. It’s time to end the fiction that players don’t get “paid,” writes Rich Moran at pjmedia.com. “The athletes get a free education at an elite school, all their needs attended to, help with their studies and the adulation and glory that go with college sports. What’s missing here?”
Whatever else they are, the athletes are not just like other students. They aren’t treated that way, and we shouldn’t think of them that way. Then, maybe we can talk about how student athletics became the tail wagging the college dog.