Jenkins: Union for college athletes not the answer

Sally Jenkins

It’s hard to view Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter as the Che Guevara of college sports once you learn that he interned at Goldman Sachs. There’s a fundamentally specious premise at the heart of the Northwestern unionization movement, and it’s this: That college athletes are exploited and aggrieved.

Yes, college players are expected to practice and play hard in exchange for the privilege of attending a university without having to incur a quarter-million dollars in student loans. That’s the deal.

And it’s not the stuff of revolution, despite the common-sense-defeating opinion this week from a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board named Peter Sung Ohr, who found that scholarship football players at Northwestern should be regarded as “employees” simply because their sport produces revenue and because football takes work. His 24-page decision that they should be allowed to unionize was a lot of senseless knee-jerkism.

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Colter and his peers aren’t laborers due compensation, they are highly privileged scholarship winners who get a lot of valuable stuff for free. This includes first-rate training in the habits of high achievement, cool gear, unlimited academic tutoring for gratis and world-class medical care that no one else has access to. All of which was put into perspective by Michigan State basketball Coach Tim Izzo when he was asked about the ruling at the NCAA tournament East Region semifinals in New York.

“I think sometimes we take rights to a whole new level,” Izzo said. “. . . I think there’s a process in rights. And you earn that. We always try to speed the process up. I said to my guys, ‘There’s a reason you have to be 35 to be president.’ That’s the way I look at it.”

Izzo got at something that no one other commentator has: College athletes enroll at their institutions to mature. Whatever their end goals, pro aspirations or workloads, they are no different from any other students in that respect. They are there to develop emotionally, intellectually and physically, and that’s all a school owes them, no matter how much revenue is generated by Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t injustices in the NCAA revenue system – of course there are. But those injustices aren’t redressed by wrongly giving scholarship athletes the right to unionize. It’s not true that defining them as labor would automatically be to their benefit – that’s an ideological assumption.

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To understand just how erroneous and ill-serving Ohr’s ruling is, ask yourself some simple questions. If Colter is an exploited laborer, then is a female tennis player at Stanford an exploited laborer, too? Is a lacrosse player at Virginia an exploited laborer? Is a rower at Harvard?

The NCAA is made up of 15,000 institutions and 20-odd sports. What’s the bargaining unit? Is it just football and basketball players who can unionize? Or all scholarship athletes? Can a freshman demand as much pay as a senior? Is there seniority? Can women demand equal pay – and if not, why not?

What do you do about the fact that the bargaining unit changes dramatically every year as players enroll and graduate? Who is going to represent them in bargaining – and where will the money to pay them come from? Will athletes have to pay dues? Is this going to be a separate union, or part of a larger one – so far Colter’s group has been backed by the United Steelworkers. Does that mean the larger union will run negotiations for them and make decisions on their behalf?

What about transfer rules? If players are employees, then can they simply quit? At the end of a game can they cross the field and ask for a job from the opposing coach?

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The full cost of tuition, room and board at Northwestern is around $63,000 a year, which means the four-year cost of a scholarship is $252,000. If players are employees, then that is taxable, right? And so is all of the other stuff they get of value, including their free food at the training table?

If athletes are union-eligible employees, the new union will have to police the way business is done, and certify agents. The NFL Players Association spends millions each year in certifying agents. Who will pay for that? Whose job will it be to make sure desperate parents and predatory agents don’t sell the services of underage 17-year-olds?

What will be their earning minimum? Will star players have to give up some of their earning ability, see their income restricted, in order to establish minimums for lesser players?

These are just a few of the difficult questions that arise from Ohr’s contorted definition of Northwestern’s football players as employees. He may have thought he was addressing an economic wrong in focusing on the 40 to 60 hours of work that they put into their sports. But in fact what he did was reinforce the worst stereotype, that athletes are trespassers on college campuses.

Students chose all different levels of workloads on campuses, and that’s their right. Some want a beer-drinking experience, and some want honors. To say, as Ohr does, that because Northwestern’s players work so hard at their sport, what they do on campus has nothing to do with their academics is a serious mischaracterization. Only the smallest minority of them will become pros. Most of them will use their education, and that is the most important experience they’re getting on campus. Balancing their dual workloads is the challenge they signed up for, and among the things it teaches is the timeless lesson anyone learns from demanding teachers and courseloads, the lesson of aspiration: We can’t want this for you more than you want it for yourself, or you will fail. You have to want it.

It’s not looking out for college athletes to open the Pandora’s box of employment and unionization. Would Kwame Brown truly have been exploited by spending a couple of years on the Florida campus under the tutelage of Billy Donovan? Or was he more exploited and ill-served by going straight to the NBA and joining that union?

The NLRB ruling does nothing to solve the question of what to do about the fact that in some instances universities make huge profits off their athletes – though not many, as most operate in the red. There are other, more effective ways to address this. Like making scholarships good for life, and giving athletes the money they deserve from their own autographs and likenesses.

College athletics sit extremely uneasily on our campuses, there’s no denying that. They’re an advanced course in legal, ethical problem solving. But this isn’t the remedy.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at