Debate Club

Should College Athletes Unionize?

Should College Athletes Unionize?

Former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter and National College Players Association President Ramogi Huma were on Capitol Hill this week to meet with lawmakers regarding the attempt by members of Northwestern's football team to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board ruled recently that Northwestern's players – despite claims from the NCAA that its athletes are students first – are employees of the university and thus legally able to organize. Northwestern is appealing the decision.

In his ruling, Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the NLRB in Chicago, said the players meet the definition of employee due to the time commitment required to be a football player and because they are providing substantial benefits to the university. “When you're dedicating so many hours to your sport, it's hard for you to reach your true academic potential,” Colter said yesterday.

Some lawmakers were receptive to the idea of players unionizing. “These young men make a lot of money for these very wealthy coaching staffs and the university, and I think the discussion is really important,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week that “of course they should be able to organize. The way these people are treated by the NCAA and the universities themselves is really unpardonable, and I wish them well. I’ll do anything I can to help."

The NCAA, meanwhile, has said that players unionizing would "completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone to attend college." And the NCAA, too, has its allies on Capitol Hill.

“Imagine a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet Sixteen game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food, and no classes before 11 a.m.,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a statement. “This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.” Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed, saying, “I haven’t looked at the specifics of this and what would be required, but having formally chaired the House Education and Workforce Committee and worked with the National Labor Relations Act for the last 30 years, I find it a bit bizarre."

Thus far, the players and their representatives maintain that they are not looking to be paid for playing, but instead "will be negotiating for things like increased scholarships and medical coverage, educational trust funds and more protective safety protocols." Colter said, "It's really about, are you going to set these kids up for success? Are you going to allow them to have a voice, and guarantee them their basic protections, their basic rights?"

So should college athletes unionize? Here is the Debate Club's take:

The Arguments

34.0 Pts
Young People Understand Unions Can Solve Problems

Yes – Young People Understand Unions Can Solve Problems

Liz Shuler is secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

5.0 Pts
College Athletes Deserve a Voice

Yes – College Athletes Deserve a Voice

Marc Edelman is associate professor of law at Zicklin School of Business.

2.0 Pts
College Sports Need a Fundamental Rethink

Maybe – College Sports Need a Fundamental Rethink

Ellen Staurowsky , Jeffrey Orleans is former commissioner of the Ivy League athletics conference.

-5.0 Pts
The NCAA Is a Cartel, But Unions Aren't the Answer

No – The NCAA Is a Cartel, But Unions Aren't the Answer

Salim Furth is a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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