For years, a controversy has broiled about whether or not college athletes should be paid for their “services.” I put quotation marks around that word because I’m not sure the word applies but it is used frequently in regards to college athletes.
Former Northwestern (Il.) quarterback Kain Colter has a strong opinion on the subject. He and some of his fellow Northwestern football players recently received a landmark ruling from the National Labor Relations board. In that ruling, the board stated that the players had the right to form the first labor union in the history of college sports.
But are these kids (and they are truly kids) be considered employees? There are a lot of things in favor of that argument. Without those athletes, colleges would lose, literally, millions of dollars of sports revenue every year. The money gleaned from college football alone pays for campus libraries and the like. No athletes (employees) no school (business.)
With the demands placed on these student-athletes most spend far more time on athletics than academics. Colter stated in testimony that he was even pressured by coaches to change his major and courses to less involved ones so that he could devote more time to football. This would not be the first time in history that athletics took precedence over academics at a college or university.
Employees get paid, and it has been argued that these student-athletes are paid in the form of scholarships, tuition, housing and free meals. However, there is no retirement account or human resources department as at most companies. Are they students? Most college students are not told when to go to bed, when to wake up, to stay off social media and sanctioned by the school to miss classes in order to travel. But at the same time they are getting an education, and no future in sports is guaranteed for any of them. So, in a sense the academic institution is setting these students up for employment down the road.
As a sports writer covering high school sports I was taught to never tag a student-athlete with a game-losing strikeout or fumble in print. These kids are purely amateurs, the argument (which I happen to agree with) goes. But when I covered college sports it was an entirely different story. Name names, expect results. These players, after all, are college athletes; the thinking, of course, being that they are not really amateurs. I’ve always supported this way of thinking by reminding myself that they are getting, in some cases, $100,000 educations for free in exchange for representing the school on the court or field and in the press.
So, do they work for the college then? Yes, they do. And while I don’t know if I support paying college-athletes a salary, they need to be able to have more say in how they are treated and what is expected of them. I say this encumbered by thousands of dollars in student loan debt. I should have been a better athlete.