CHICAGO - Wednesday afternoon the National Labor Relations Board put a big blow into college athletics by ruling that players at Northwestern University were employees and therefore had the right to unionize as so. The ruling has sent shock-waves through the NCAA community and sports world and has raised more questions than it has answered.
The college sports industry is worth billions of dollars across the nation at various levels of athletics from Division I to Division III in the NCAA. Television contracts from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship and the former Bowl Championship Series that earned billions of dollars are at the center point of debate of whether or not to pay college athletes.
Students at Northwestern said they were not looking for money, but rather after football care provided from their university. They are worried about the after-effects of playing sports while in college much like NFL players have been worried about recently with regard to head injuries. Most NCAA football players will never see an NFL field in their careers, but they are bringing millions of dollars to universities across the country and want their piece of the pie.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, NCAA President Mark Emmert said reforms needed to happen to ensure the operations of the NCAA and suggested that people do not know where the money goes from the basketball tournament and football bowls. Emmert is right. The money generated in those sports is used to pay for championships in other, non-revenue sports in the NCAA such as lacrosse and water polo.
To Emmert’s credit, twice has he tried to implement a stipend for student-athletes as part of the cost of education package that athletes are awarded in the NCAA. Both times it has failed to pass from the 350 member body NCAA Division I colleges. University presidents do not want to have athletes become employees and get a paycheck either. Furthermore, Emmert questioned why athletes would even play college at all if they wanted to become professionals. Clearly Emmert does not know the NBA will not take players right out of high school nor does the NFL for football players.
If athletes are forced into college and to be a “student-athlete,” why not change silly NCAA rules about making money while in school rather than pay athletes. Should it not be the right of the star basketball player at Kansas to do commercials for the local car lot or the Alabama football star to do public appearances for a fee. Athletes are the only college students who cannot take a talent they have and profit off it for fear of losing their eligibility to participate.
If the new union ruling holds for athletes it may change the landscape of college sports and what athletes at the college level are able to do with their image. Currently, former UCLA standout Ed O’Bannon has a case against the NCAA for use of his image from the 1995 season that says the Bruins capture the NCAA title. The case is set to be heard in July in California and could further limit what the NCAA could do with former players likenesses. When signing a college scholarship with the NCAA, the athlete agrees to give up their image “forever and throughout the universe.”
In the heart of March Madness these issues are raised by student athletes as well as talking heads on both sides of the issue. Personally, I do not think players should receive a paycheck for competing in college but rather be able to make money off the image and likeness. The NCAA should ease up rules for what a player can get while in school. If a player like Terrelle Pryor wants to trade autographs for tattoos, that should be his right to do so.