"As far as I am concerned, all of college football should go to an Ivy League model in which ordinary students compete, recruiting madness is eliminated, and we coaches can get free of a degraded culture." — Chuck Mather, Kansas University football coach, 1956.
A National Labor Relations Board regional director shook up college athletics last week by ruling that Northwestern University football players were employees of the university and eligible to form a college athletes union. The ruling followed an initiative by Northwestern players, led by their former quarterback. Their effort was backed by the United Steelworkers of America.
The ruling would apply only to student athletes at private universities such as Northwestern, Stanford, Duke, Rice, Vanderbilt and the University of Southern California. But, if the unionization effort proves successful, there is little doubt that it would spread to public institutions such as the University of Washington.
The ruling came as a surprise but should not have. The NLRB notoriously tilts toward the union side during Democratic administrations and to a management side under Republicans. Northwestern's president said the university would appeal the regional ruling to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. as well as pursue other legal channels. He also said that, as a last resort, the university would give up varsity football.
It will be many months, maybe several years, before this issue is resolved. But it raises once more the whole role of varsity sports in our colleges and universities and where they are and should be headed.
The current argument in a nutshell: The petitioning players, and many in the sports world who agree with them, argue that scholarship football and basketball players, in particular, are forced to devote at least as many hours to their sports as to actual study — in fact are employees rather than students — and should form a union which would advocate for their compensation, health care and other benefits just as unionized employees bargain with other employers.
The union advocates point, in particular, to TV, promotional and other income that flows to the university and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from the players' efforts and in which the athletes do not share. The advocates also cite restrictions on the players' behavior and lifestyle, which are imposed without their explicit consent.
Opponents of this view agree that major-college football (and, in some cases, basketball) revenues have become huge. But, they argue, these revenues also pay for all the other sports activities at the institutions, including women's sports and other sports such as track and field, golf, tennis, crew, baseball, wrestling, swimming, lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball. Should these athletes also be paid? Should they paid but at rates below those of football and basketball players? If so, how would this affect the status of women's sports under Title IX?
Critics also respond that the college-football athletes receive hundreds of thousands of dollars, over a four-year period, in tuition and fees, housing, academic support services, and other benefits which ordinary students must pay for on their own. They also get college educations at institutions to which many of them would not be admitted were it not for their athletic skills.
The proper place of sports at colleges and universities has been an almost ceaseless topic of conversation since the early 20th century. The University of Chicago was a founding member of the Big Ten conference and its football coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, the most renowned coach in the country. Yet, in 1939, the University of Chicago gave up varsity football (and later withdrew altogether from the Big Ten). It did so because its president and trustees believed that football was overshadowing the university's principal education mission. The University of Chicago would remain a preeminent institution, with or without football. A few years ago the school reinstated football as a club sport and, then, upgraded it to small-college competition against Midwestern and Western opponents. The Chicago Maroons played Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR this past season. Other schools, such as Western Washington University, have discontinued varsity football because its revenues could not pay for it.
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