Two days ago, adjuncts unionizing in DC, yesterday, a ruling from a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director that college athletes may unionize. The ruling is essentially provisional, because Northwestern University, one of whose football players pushed for the union, will appeal the decision to the NLRB. The AP does a pretty good job of addressing the main issues involved from a variety of angles. The players’ main beef was that the NCAA has resisted protecting athletes from concussions, and, furthermore, they’d like health insurance and some form of provision for future health problems stemming from their collegiate football days. It’s hard to believe that unionization could be worse than college athletes’ current workplace dangers. Beyond the ways that big-time football and men’s basketball are awash in money, the intersection of college athletics, employment, and health liability has a long history.
In fact, as Robert A. McCormick and Amy Christian McCormack have succinctly put it, in the 1950s and 1960s
The NCAA purposely created the term “student-athlete” as propaganda, solely to obscure the reality of the university-athlete employment relationship and to avoid universities’ legal responsibilities as employers.
The NCAA did so precisely to avoid liability for athletes’ health. Wow, we wouldn’t expect the denial that someone’s an employee from the academy, just to save money, would we? Shall we ask a current graduate student?
What this will mean, if anything, is hard to tell. Nonetheless, the anti-unionists know, just know, dagnabbit, that it must be bad. The Denver Post Editorial Board called the ruling “ominous,” and opined that “the creation of player unions will be a destructive force in a system that needs more focused and intelligent reform.” However, that statement comes at the end of the article, with no preceding evidence presented for why unionization would harm athletes or universities, even after the acknowledgment that students get something (in this case, an education), in exchange for their service as athletes. Sounds like the language of those sympathetic to employers everywhere: they get something, why are those pesky workers complaining?
Whatever the effects of potential unionization, it can’t be more dangerous to athletes than the concussion epidemic they face now, in football and even more in other sports, that the NCAA has tried to sweep under the rug, for which it’s being sued. At the very least, maybe unionization or the threat of it may lead to NCAA institutions protecting “student-athletes” almost as much as exploiting them.