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In the last few weeks, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been hearing testimony for a petition on whether Northwestern University football players should be able to form a union. The face behind the petition is Kain Coiter, a former Northwestern quarterback, who claims being a college football player is a job and thus they should be compensated as such. Coiter testified that his entire college career revolved around football, especially due to the long practice hours. Coiter goes on to say that he had to change to an easier major because he did not have the time to complete a more demanding one. Assuming more players have similar stories, it does not quite make sense that most players do not at least receive a full-tuition scholarship, while the universities are making millions off of their talent.
This belief has led to the ongoing conversation about compensating college athletes for their contributions to universities; and this petition is another step toward reform of the NCAA and college athletics. The conversation really commenced after the O’Bannon case began, in which the plaintiffs are trying to get the NCAA to give players some of the profits they are making from the use of athletes’ images in media (previously discussed here and here). The biggest hurdle for both Northwestern and O’Bannon is to change the fact that college athletics is based on amateurism, meaning unlike professional athletes, they are not paid for playing.
The main question to be determined in the Northwestern hearing is whether collegiate athletes are “student-athletes” or employees of the University. Officials and coaches of Northwestern have introduced evidence to show why their football players are not employees — including tutoring, study hall, and other student-related services offered by the University to players. While the College Athletes Players Association, on behalf of the players, has introduced evidence for why they are employees — including playing football around fifty hours a week, receiving compensation for their performance through scholarships, answering to supervisors, being under contract, and if they do not follow the rules or their supervisor’s wishes, they can lose their scholarship and their position on the team. Looking at the the universal definition of an employee, a person who works for another person or company for money, collegiate athletes seem to fit right in.
One suggestion to meet in the middle of this conundrum would be to remain an amateur-based system while still increasing the benefits student-athletes receive for their performance. This would include offering the student-athletes benefits such as a stipend for costs that are not covered by their scholarships, and more extensive medical coverage for injuries sustained while playing. These are all options worth considering in order to maintain the status quo between amateur and professional athletes.
The NLRB should make their decision within the next month. Whoever the NLRB sides with, this petition will nonetheless still be a big step towards reform for college athletics.
– Brittany Burnham
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