This morning in Chicago there will be a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in which the NLRB will determine whether the football players at Northwestern University can form a union to represent their interests. The university is opposing the players' application on the grounds that college football players are students, not employees.
Over the past few years the business of college football has exploded. While it was always popular the money being thrown about by networks to broadcast college football games is at stratospheric levels. Despite the unprecedented television rights fees, only about 10% of the athletic departments at public universities in Division I turn a profit. The vast majority of schools tax all students to pay for the school's athletic teams.
But all the new money flowing into college athletics hasn't trickled down to the players. Yes, the players receive scholarships to attend school - and many are given access to a school that they would not have otherwise been able to attend - but the scholarships are held over their heads by the coach and school. Scholarships for football players are not handed out for a four or five-year period, they are handed out on a year-to-year basis. This means that the players' educations are subject to the whims of the coaching staff.
Football scholarships should be for at least five years to insure that every football player has the opportunity to obtain their degree after their playing days are over. Only a small minority of college football players will ever go on to earn a paycheck for playing football; for the rest, that college degree is the reward for their playing days.
The players spend at least as much time on the field as they do in class every week. They are used by the universities as marketing tools to attract new applicants and athletic donors. The schools sell uniforms with numbers - but not names - that correspond to the most popular players. Their work benefits the school. Yet the schools insist they are not employees.
College athletes should receive a stipend of some sort for the work they perform for the university. That stipend should be based upon the number of hours they spend at practice and on the field. At the very least they should be compensated at the same level students on work-study programs are paid. The schools should also be responsible for the future medical expenses for injuries the players suffered while playing college ball.
College football is a huge money-making machine and the players are the unpaid labor that makes it all possible. It's time they received a fair shake from these institutes of higher learning who are given the task of preparing our youth to be the leaders of tomorrow.