Earlier today, football players at Northwestern University in Chicago cast ballots in an election, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, concerning whether they would unionize. Recently, the NLRB ruled preliminarily that under its regulations, the football players are employees of the university. That preliminary ruling is under review, so it will be some time before the results of the election are known.
I am a strong believer in the need for labor unions. After all, virtually all of the legal protections for workers we have today--the minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, restrictions on child labor, workplace safety rules, and many others--exist because unions fought for them. In the absence of unions, workers are subject to as much abuse and cruelty as their employers can get away with, because most people cannot simply leave their jobs. Indeed, employers take great pains to make it difficult for their employees to leave.
A recent class-action lawsuit against large tech companies like Google, Yahoo, and others, alleges that those companies entered into a conspiracy in which they agreed not to "poach" employees from other members of the conspiracy, thereby artificially keeping wages low. That policy--which is well documented--kept billions of dollars out of the hands of workers.
Often, when this subject comes up, I hear criticisms of unions even from people who trend leftward on most political issues. "Unions are corrupt," they say, "and they enrich the union bosses at the expense of the rank-and-file members." I don't think that unions are exempt from criticism. As with any political organization, there have been abuses. Unions create a confluence of money and power, and for that reason, they are susceptible to exploitation by corrupt individuals.
But the fact that unions aren't perfect does not mean that they are bad for America. On balance, we have historically done better as a nation when union membership has been high. It is no surprise that real wages for the middle class and the working poor have eroded steadily just as has union membership.
Unions have the greatest potential for good when they address the conditions under which workers labor. That makes the situation at Northwestern--and at hundreds of other universities--ripe for the application of organization to the labor force.
We think of college athletics as "amateur" sports, but that's a convenient fiction. The reality is that college athletics are big business for the universities and for the organization--the NCAA--that regulates them. Universities use athletics as a vector for fundraising and recruitment, and with a wink and a nod make certain that their athletic arms have top-flight facilities first and foremost. The head football coach (or the basketball coach, at some schools) is usually the highest-paid university employee, earning a seven-figure salary in many if not most cases, and the assistants often have salaries that exceed those of tenured professors.
Moreover, the universities, the conferences, and the NCAA use athletics to derive billions of dollars in revenue from television contracts.
None of those people are doing it for "the love of the game."
College athletes who receive scholarships do receive benefits associated with the work they do to make college athletics possible. Northwestern pegs the cost of attendance--tuition, fees, books, room and board, and personal expenses--at about $66,000 a year. College athletes receive additional benefits associated with their performance, including free medical care for sports-related injuries, specialized training, and expense money and meals when traveling to events. But despite these nominal benefits, college athletes, especially football players, are nonetheless exploited by the NCAA juggernaut.
Athletes are severely limited in the outside and summer employment they can hold. They do not receive anything from the use of their images and names by their universities, by the NCAA, or even by the commercial entities that make money through NCAA licensing. They are prohibited from sponsorship and endorsement contracts. Their scholarships last one year; the university can unilaterally decline to renew a scholarship for any reason, including injury, or for no reason at all. But athletes who sign with a university are bound to that university for their entire eligibility. Transfer is possible, but the athlete is almost always held ineligible to play for an entire year--and in certain circumstances, that year can count against the athlete's total eligibility.
But perhaps the most significant exploitation is this: An athlete who sustains a serious injury as a result of competition is owed no long-term care by the university who benefited from that athlete's work. Football is a dangerous sport that carries a substantial risk of serious trauma--broken bones, damaged knees, concussions, even in rare cases serious spinal cord injuries that result in paralysis.
I don't know whether unionization will fix these issues. But what I do know is that no one--not the coaching staffs, not the universities and conferences, and not the NCAA (especially not the NCAA)--is looking out exclusively for the best interests of student-athletes. All of those entities make their living on the exploitation of the labor that student-athletes provide, and for that reason, they cannot be trusted to have students-athletes' best interests at heart. Unionization, at a minimum, would give voice and organization to student-athletes in a way that the current system does not allow.
I'm a fan of the college game, and I root for my alma mater to win every time they play. I believe that college athletics has a place in our society. But there is no reason why the athletes cannot organize and have a direct say in matters that affect their interests. In the end, I think it will result in a better game if they do.