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Westhem: Northwestern football players threatening college athletics

Northwestern football players were granted the right to unionize by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week. The players were deemed “employees” of the university and so the NLRB Region 13 director, Peter Sung Ohr, approved the ruling.

I wish this ruling had been made today so that I could know for certain that this was an April Fool’s joke. Right now, I’m just hoping they decided to make the joke a little early.

I just spent the majority of this school year interviewing athletes to gain insight into what it’s like to be a student-athlete at the collegiate level. It’s not all shiny new Nike apparel and free books; there’s a lot of time, pain and energy that goes into competing at the highest level. But almost all athletes agreed that their love for the sport is what makes it all worthwhile. The perks are nice, but as many athletes expressed to the NCAA while this case was under review by the NLRB, they “participate [in a sport] to enhance their overall college experience.”

The ability of high-revenue teams at private universities to unionize could end up undermining the integrity of collegiate athletics and blur its distinction from professional sports, while also creating a divide between academic and athletic pursuits on campus.

The whole debacle was not founded on money, however. Northwestern senior quarterback Kain Colter brought the question of unionizing the team to the attention of the National College Players Association, which filed a petition on behalf of players to increase protection against injuries. The petition was not about earning money for the players, but rather arose out of concern for athletes’ health care coverage. The players believed that athletes shouldn’t have to pay for injuries incurred while playing their sport or lose their scholarship if forced to medically retire due to an athletic injury; basically, they deserve some form of workers’ protection.

Although the petition arose from a desire to increase the protection of student-athletes’ welfare, Ohr’s decision to unionize the team was made from a purely business angle, treating the case as any other he might deal with and not taking into account that the players are not just “employees” but are also students and have responsibilities to the university other than to play their sport. The ruling could lead to confusion about the job of a student-athlete: to go to class while simultaneously representing the university athletically, or simply to play their sport and focus on that endeavor? The ruling basically asserts that the football players are hired by the coaches and paid in scholarship money and so can be considered employed by the university, as are students working in the library.

But if players are being hired by coaches, then what role does the admissions process play? One Stanford student-athlete questioned whether football players will then be admitted to the university as paid employees to play football or as students.

Although the case might have started with good intentions on the part of Colter and members of the Northwestern football team, the decision could open up another can of worms and impact the integrity and spirit of college sports.

While it is true that the life of a student-athlete differs greatly from that of a non-athlete, they are still students just the same and are receiving an education in return for the commitment they put into their sport. Ohr criticized coaches for breaking the NCAA’s hour limits with the imposition of extra meetings, film-watching and “voluntary” workouts and that players should be compensated for those.

Student-athletes do receive incentives besides scholarships, however, to reward them for all the time they put into their sport. Some universities go so far as to allow special housing for athletes (Auburn) and hold more lenient academic standards for athletes (causing controversy at the University of Georgia). At Stanford, athletes receive free books, units for their sport (although a mere eight units for an athlete’s entire career is a bit ludicrous), tutoring from the AARC and the red backpack, for example.

Northwestern is going to appeal the decision, but Northwestern players will vote to be unionized and could subsequently be entitled to bargain collectively with Northwestern regarding player benefits. Other private universities could make this happen on their own campuses, and if that becomes the case, the spirit of collegiate athletics will be tainted. Student-athletes play to play — and maybe to pay for college — and shouldn’t be given exorbitant preferential treatment. Although this was not the intent of the Northwestern football players, the ruling could be construed in this way in the future.

I have the utmost respect for student-athletes. Heck, I aspire to be an Athletic Director at a major university so that I can positively impact and improve their college experiences. But that improvement is not going to be found by undermining the NCAA and unionizing its teams.

To tell Ashley why her best friend, Chiney Ogwumike, deserves compensation for her hard work as a student-athlete, contact her at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu at Tweet at her @ashwest16.

About Ashley Westhem

Ashley Westhem is the voice of Stanford women’s basketball for KZSU as well as The Daily’s beat writer for the team. She has been a desk editor for three volumes and plans to take over as Managing Editor of Sports next volume and aid in KZSU’s coverage of football. She is an American Studies major from Lake Tahoe, Calif., and aspires to work in sports administration, to positively affect the lives of student-athletes and the relationship between the athletic and academic spheres of universities.