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Can College Athletes Unionize?

Historically, unions have allowed workers to negotiate jointly with employers, often in situations where the individual workers lack the ability to effectively negotiate on their own behalf. Unions typically represent workers with relatively little individual power, and professionals have not been permitted to unionize on the theory that they are capable of representing their interests and negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment individually.

In recent years, however, there have been attempts to unionize college athletes, raising questions about the extent to which college athletes are employees, as well as challenging notions about the purpose and utility of unionization.

Are Football Players Employees?

Football players at Northwestern University recently sought classification as employees entitled to certain rights and obligations in a bid to organize a union. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal organization responsible for organizing labor unions, unanimously declined to classify the student athletes as employees. Although the board didn't rule directly on the question of whether student athletes are employees, it still declined to extend their jurisdiction to cover college football, citing negative consequences for choosing to do so.

Pro-Unionization Arguments

Those who feel that college athletes should unionize argue that unionization would provide the athletes with a number of benefits, including:

  • Procedural protections, including notice and a hearing prior to punishment
  • Increased freedom for student athletes to voice their opinions on social media without college interference
  • New financial rights
  • Health care benefits
  • Pension plans

Advocates argue that school athletes meet the common law definition of "employee" since they perform services for another under contract of hire, subject to the other's control or right of control.

Both catastrophic injuries and long-term health risks are points of concern for student and professional athletes. Football, in particular, has come under scrutiny for the cognitive issues, depression, and other significant health conditions that can result from participation in the sport. At present, it can be very difficult to recover when a student athlete is injured. As the medical world comes to understand the connections between the injuries suffered on the football field and the conditions student-athletes suffer later in life, unionization may provide protections, treatment, and compensation for the suffering that can arise out of participation in college sports.

Advocates of unionization also point out that college athletes don't share in the multi-billion dollar revenue earned from college sports, and that the enforced amateurism of college athletics prevents schools from adequately compensating athletes, considering their financial importance. College athletes are also forbidden from monetizing their abilities through sponsorships or advertisement, resulting in poverty and a lack of health or disability benefits for many college athletes.

Anti-Unionization Arguments

Opponents of student athlete unionization point out that although college athletes work hard for long hours in an activity that may produce a lot of money for their universities, these things do not create an employer-employee relationship between the school and its students. They point out that the business of higher education is the exchange of tuition money for an education, which does not create an employer-employee relationship between the parties.

Although some student sports may generate large amounts of money there are also many student sports that tend not to generate profits. Allowing athletes who play profitable sports, like football or basketball, to unionize would logically permit the less profitable sports groups to join or create their own unions. If colleges are forced to pay salaries and provide insurance for every sport equally, the result could be financially disastrous. Negotiating with multiple unions would also tax administrative resources.

Opponents say that instances of clear unfairness can be addressed by universities by supporting student athletes with grants and loans. Some argue that even if the students participating in the most profitable sports should be better represented this can be accomplished by changing school rules to permit a special class of professional student athletes rather than creating unions.

The NCAA Position

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a nonprofit association that regulates the athletic programs of many colleges and universities. The association is made up of representatives from the schools and school presidents. The NCAA sees efforts by student athletes to unionize as fundamentally undermining the purpose of college.

The organization states that it does not employ athletes, that students' participation in sports is voluntary, and that students attend college for an education, not to be employed as athletes. Regardless of the NCAA's position, court rulings have already begun to appear that require the NCAA to allow universities to share revenue with their athletes.

Get Legal Help With Your Employment Law Questions

Student athletes seeking compensation or benefits can consult with an experienced employment lawyer. A local attorney can provide advice about the relevant state laws and court decisions and help determine whether joining in unionization efforts is appropriate for you.

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