By Peter Kaufman
A spectre is haunting [college sports]—the spectre of Unionization. All the powers of [college sports] have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: [Chancellors and College Presidents, NCAA and Corporate Sponsors, Governors and State Legislatures].
On March 26, 2014, Peter Ohr, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University should be considered employees of the college. Ohr’s ruling was based on the fact that players devote up to 50 hours a week on team-related activities (which, he noted, is “more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs [and] it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies”), that coaches have tremendous control over these athletes, and that the university makes a huge profit ($235 million between 2003—2009) from the hard work of the players. As a result of this ruling, football players at Northwestern University voted on April 25, 2014 to decide whether to unionize. Although the results of the vote will not be known for months, the effects have already been felt in the world of college sports.
In The Communist Manifesto (the first sentence of which I paraphrased at the beginning of this post), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made the famous distinction between the bourgeois and the proletariats. In very simple terms, the bourgeois are the owners, the ones who run the business. The proletariats are the workers, the ones who make the products that bring profits to the bourgeois.
Ohr’s ruling makes a strong case that college football players at Division I schools such as Northwestern are part of the proletariat. Through the work that these athletes produce, the top Division I universities make an enormous profit from ticket revenues, television contracts, merchandise sales, and other licensing agreements. Even the major governing body of college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), profits handsomely from these players with its yearly revenues approaching $1 billion.
Despite erroneous media reports to the contrary, the players are not even asking to be paid like salaried employees. According to Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player who is the head of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA),the organization that submitted the petition to the NLRB on behalf of the Northwestern players, the college athletes are asking for the opportunity to engage in collective bargaining so that they can advocate for the following reforms and safeguards:
- Guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players.
- Minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injury. Reduce contact in practices like the NFL and Pop Warner have done, place independent concussion experts on the sidelines, and establish uniform return-to-play protocols.
- Improving graduation rates. Establish an educational trust fund to help former players complete their degree and reward those who graduate on time.
- Consistent with evolving NCAA regulations or future legal mandates, increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships.
- Securing due process rights. Players should not be punished simply because they are accused of a rule violation, and any punishments levied should be consistent across campuses.
Peter Ohr’s ruling has garnered a whole array of responses. It’s been called well-reasoned and significant, unexpected and momentous, stunning and revolutionary, and landmark and historic. Not surprisingly, it has also resulted in both cheers and jeers. Some haill it as “major victory for the college athlete labor movement” and others claim it to be “a disaster for universities, for college sports fans and, most important, for student athletes themselves.”
Those who are most vehemently opposed to this ruling are the NCAA and Northwestern University. Mark Emmert, president of the NCAAA, has been on a campaign portending doom and gloom should this ruling stand and the players decide to unionize. Similarly, the Northwestern University football coach, Pat Fitzgerald, has urged his players to vote no. These sentiments are to be expected from the gatekeepers of the NCAA. Despite having a surplus for each of the past three years in excess of $60 million, as well as net assets of more than $627 million (nearly double that amount from 2007), this ruling as well as a number of other legal threats, has the NCAA worried about its free-flowing profits.
If Marx and Engels were alive today, they would not be surprised that Emmert and company defend the profit-making machine of the NCAA. After all, in The Communist Manifesto they critique the bourgeois for defending the status quo and working to protect the interests of the capitalist class. The bourgeois would never willingly give up its power or profits; however, as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward demonstrated in Regulating the Poor, those in power may offer the impoverished some relief as way to avert unrest and dissent. I doubt that Mark Emmert has read this classic sociological book, but it makes me wonder given the NCAA’s recent proposal to allow schools to give their athletes unlimited food and snacks.
The case of college athletes unionizing is not only an issue of worker’s rights. This case has the potential to expose many other underlying and inexcusable problems with college sports such as the graduation gap between black and white athletes, the ongoing gender inequality in college sports, the skyrocketing salaries of coaches (many of whom are the highest paid public employees in their state), as well as a host of other “shameful” issues.
This dismal state of affairs calls out for action by college athletes so let me again turn to The Communist Manifesto (this time the very last paragraph of the text) for inspiration:
The [College Athletes] disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forceful eradication of these deplorable conditions. Let the [NCAA and Universities] tremble at a [College Athletes] Revolution. The [College Athletes] have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
[COLLEGE ATHLETES OF ALL COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES], UNITE!