College Athletes: Unionize If You Want to Be Ripped Off Less

Later this month, Northwestern University football players will vote on whether to form a union. Their coach is against it. The head of the NCAA is against it. Those are two great reasons for the players to vote "yes."

In order to have an honest discussion about this topic, we need to be clear about one thing: big time college athletes are exploited. They work the hours of a full time job. Their schools make tons of money off of them. And they are not paid. Their only compensation is a scholarship, which can be taken away if the athlete stops playing. Ironic, since academics are often a distant second priority to sports—a hierarchy implicitly established by the schools themselves.

So, yes, big time college athletes are actually a perfect group to unionize. Of course, so are retail workers and auto workers, and neither of them can seem to vote for a union, so you never know how these things will turn out. But the players, and those who truly care about their welfare as human beings, rather than as positions on a football field, should know that the frantic opposition to unionization coming from the very top of the college sports power structure is pretty good sign that something is amiss.

Yesterday, NCAA president Mark Emmert derided the idea of a player union as "grossly inappropriate." From the Wall Street Journal:

"It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics," he said. While conceding the NCAA needed to address certain problems, "no one up here believes the way you fix that is by converting student-athletes into unionized employees."

I hope that the players at Northwestern will understand that when NCAA president Mark Emmert says that "no one up here" believes a union is necessary, what he means is, "No one up here in the offices of the NCAA, which generated $913 million in revenue last year thanks in large part to the unpaid players in Division I men's basketball and football, sees a problem with the current system, which serves our interests quite well. Neither I, Mark Emmert, who made $1.7 million in 2011, nor your coach, Pat Fitzgerald, who was paid $2.2 million the same year, believe that you, the unpaid players, need a union to protect and advance your interests. We, the highly paid kings of college athletics, believe that the current situation in which we have all of the power and money and you have none is preferable."

That is what NCAA president Mark Emmert is saying to you, college athletes. Just to be clear.

Further proof of a union's utility: the mere possibility that players could unionize is already forcing the NCAA to scramble to address some of the aforementioned "certain problems." Northwestern football players magically received improved helmets; four year unconditional scholarships and the shortening of athletic seasons are being discussed. "If these things were good ideas before the possibility of a union ever came up," a college athlete might ask himself, "why are they only being seriously addressed after the possibility of a union came up?"

A good question, college athlete. A very good question.

It is unsurprising that those who profit greatly from the current system are opposed to changing it. Powerful institutions—in this case, colleges, the NCAA, and all of those who profit from big time college sports—fear unions, because unions are a way to turn an easily manipulated group (workers—in this case, college athletes) into a powerful institution of their own. Industries in which everything is peachy keen and workers are treated well and the spoils of labor are distributed fairly do not tend to see strong grassroots desire for unionization. Industries in which the workers are getting fucked tend to be ripe for unions. College sports is the latter. For any college athletes out there, you should know that despite the panicked doomsaying from the establishment, this issue is very simple: right now, you have almost no power to control your own fate. A union would give you some power. Right now, your sliver of the pie is tiny. A union could give you a bigger piece of the pie. If you are okay with the current situation, then fine. But if you believe it is wrong that a lot of middle-aged men are getting filthy rich off your labor, you may want to consider voting for a union. Your time in college sports is short. You should get something for it.

[Photo: AP]