In our opinion: Letting college athletes unionize is not the answer to problems in sports

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 9:50 a.m. MDT

Northwestern's football team participates in an NCAA college spring football practice Tuesday, April 1, 2014, in Evanston, Ill.

M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

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Universities in the United States have long struggled with the relationship between their sometimes wildly popular athletic programs and their academic missions. The National Labor Relation Board’s recent decision to declare that football players at Northwestern have the right to unionize is just the latest chapter in this saga.

It is, however, a disturbing one. Implicit in the ruling is the idea that athletes are being exploited or that universities are making millions off their efforts while the athletes take all the risks, especially to their long-term health.

In truth, it is a two-way street that, for most athletes, runs more in their favor than the university’s. The average player does not become famous, but he or she does, if under scholarship, benefit from a free or low-cost education at an institution of higher learning. And many of them are treated to tutoring or other programs designed to help them navigate the demanding world of practices and classes.

Indeed, it seems rather silly to hear talk of exploited athletes at a time when the word “pampered” is most often used instead, and when bad behavior off the field often gets blamed on a culture of entitlement.

Universities, on the other hand, do assume risk. They construct and maintain large stadiums and practice facilities and provide scholarships that often don’t translate into winning performances on the field. And, as too many universities have learned, if an athlete commits a crime or otherwise behaves shamefully, the school faces a public relations problem that can affect its reputation and its ability to raise money.

Sports evolved differently in American schools than in almost any other country, where club sports tend to dominate. While physical education is correctly seen as an important part of a complete academic training, the revenue potential of certain sports began to outweigh academics with the industrial age.

In his book, “Stagg’s University: The rise, decline and fall of big-time football at Chicago,” Robin Lester said student-players began becoming more “player-students” sometime between 1895 and 1905. That was when the University of Chicago, along with other schools, began enrolling good players before they had even graduated from high school, just to help get some wins.

In 1929, the Carnegie Foundation published a report that indicted colleges for using slush funds and unethical recruiting practices. It is instructive to note that many of the nation’s largest college football stadiums, including the Rose Bowl and Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium were built in the 1920s.

Colleges, then, have long “exploited” student athletes for revenue, if that word must be used. But those athletes also have benefitted from their athletic careers at high-profile universities, as well as from the opportunity to obtain a degree.

A group of football players at Northwestern has begun lobbying Congress, mostly in hopes of dissuading lawmakers from putting an end to the unionization process.

It is true the NCAA has done a poor job of confronting issues the athletes encounter, most notably having to do with injuries. Perhaps some settlement could be negotiated providing health care or better equipment.

But allowing collective bargaining by football players at private universities presents a host of complicated issues, not the least of which are Title IX issues involving gender equality. If athletic departments were forced to survive financially on their own, only a few would make it without the subsidies they currently receive from other university funds.

That is not an ideal situation under any circumstances. But making college sports more commercial does not seem like a good answer.

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