Wednesday, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as employees and, therefore, have a right to unionize. This decision reignites the debate in regard to whether student-athletes should be paid. Although I fully support student-athletes being paid, I understand most of the arguments against it.
Many people are opposed to treating athletes as employees, but I don’t see a problem with this. We can’t ignore the way that many universities treat their best athletes because simply put, they’re not treated as amateurs. NCAA athletes are subject to much stricter codes of conduct than one would expect for an “amateur” athlete. For example, athletes are subjected to intense drug testing that many private companies would never institute and are not completely relevant to athletic competition.
An NCAA athlete can’t have too much caffeine in his or her system when taking a drug test, a thought that would probably make everyone in Midnight Mug during exams start to cry. Many top-level athletes will spend up to 30 hours per week at practice for something that isn’t seen as a job, limiting their abilities to both perform academically and find a paying job in whatever free time they may have left over.
But the university exploits players’ inspirational background. During any college basketball or football game that you watch, you’ll notice an announcer using a players’ personal stories to help create interest in the game. This creates interest in their own sports programs, which in turn make money for the university’s athletic department
Top-level student-athletes are held to strict codes about behavior based on what’s best for the larger organization, and the organization has no problem using its individual lives and accomplishments to promote its larger product. And when the product — like high level Division I football or basketball teams — generates money, it is based off of the work that the student-athletes do. That sounds like employment to me.
One of the most compelling arguments for paying elite student-athletes has not received the attention that it should, but it would not surprise me if the Chicago branch of the NLRB took it into consideration for its decision. In 1997, eight years after retiring, former NCAA President Walt Byers wrote a book called Unsportsman-like Conduct; Exploiting College Athletes, in which he said that the NCAA was “fully committed to the neo-plantation belief that the enormous proceeds from college games belong to the overseers (administrators) and supervisors (coaches).”
Personally, I think that the comparison to slavery is a little strong, since student-athletes did choose to attend the school in the first place. That being said, from a financial and labor perspective, I find this belief from Byers to be incredible because he firmly criticized the structure of an association of which he was once a president.
Seemingly, this perspective should inspire widespread support to pay athletes, but people are fixated on athletes not being employees.
After debating this issue many times with people I know, opponents speak from personal experience. It seems to me that the disagreement usually arises from an idea like, “If I got into an academic institution for academic reasons, then someone who likely didn’t get in here for academics shouldn’t get paid.”
At first, this argument makes sense, but I feel that it’s naive when looking at all of the factors. It’s important to realize the vast impact that top-level athletes have on their universities. Even if a player is accepted into an academic institution for athletic reasons, that doesn’t change that the players were accepted in order to generate a large profit for the university.
In his one year playing for the Hilltop’s basketball team, Greg Monroe was worth more financially to Georgetown than I will be during my entire four years, and it’s important for me to put aside personal perspective when thinking about that.
With United States labor laws and the NLRB’s ruling as my reasoning, the revenue-earning players should get compensated for their financial contribution to the institution, and this would be treating a top-level athlete the same as any other student employee. Residence Hall Office workers or card-swipers deserve to get paid because they are performing a duty for a larger, money-earning organization that has placed a financial value on their work. A top-level athlete should be no different.
Tom Hoff is a junior in the McDonough School of Business. Down to the Wire appears every Friday.