*The tide has turned. And not a second too soon.
The National Labor Relations Board has concluded that college football players at Northwestern University qualify as workers and are therefore eligible to form a union. With that decision, and the label of labor, comes the ability to bargain for better wages. But more importantly for these college athletes is the ability to bargain for better healthcare.
To be clear this isn’t the solution to the exploitation of college athletes that I expected or argued for. But it is a welcome change to the way things were.
There are those who will say that a free college education at any university, not to mention one like Northwestern, is enough compensation. Forgetting the fact that the free college education is not guaranteed and is undermined by their athletic commitments, to these people I say that the physical toll that football can take on one’s body and (as we have found out in recent years) one’s mind is should not be minimized. Of course players should be held responsible for their decision to play a violent sport, but that doesn’t absolve those in charge of those players from the responsibility of doing what they can to minimize risk and treat players for injuries sustained while at school.
Others will say that if they are workers they can get paid and every school cannot pay the same amount. This is true and one of the reasons I argued for popular players being able to profit from their name and likeness rather than a system in which schools pay players. Nevertheless if the inequality of school resources is the problem than “salary” caps are the answer. This is what professional football and basketball do when the franchise in New York has the ability to pay players much more than the franchise in Indianapolis. Salary caps even the playing field (so to speak) and allow for the quality of decision making to determine a franchise’s success rather than the size of a bank account. The same would be true at the collegiate level.
Furthermore if there needs to be a further grouping of schools along financial lines, I’m not crazy about the idea but, I also acknowledge that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. If certain schools had the ability, and wanted to, compete against only those schools with similarly large athletic budgets – no problem. We will all watch your games with great interest knowing we can get to know the future professionals that much better while they are in school. But we’ll also look forward to seeing how the future bankers and scientists of the country compete against one another on a different day. College is about preparing young people for life by giving them life experiences. The fact is that different schools focus on different things and allocate resources accordingly.
Some people will say that if college athletes are workers they can get paid and their compensation should be taxed. OK. Where’s the problem? It is easy enough to amend the tax code to include a shelter for the value of a college scholarship while allowing the actual wages of the athletes to be taxed as income.
Others will argue that the idea of taxing their income but not their scholarships seems complicated. And that the whole idea of compensating athletes seems complicated and not worth it. I agree that I have drawn a line in the sand to protect the athletes from being overtaxed. I also point out that the line had to be drawn somewhere and that it is a worthwhile endeavor to take on such a complicated situation. Not doing so is simply giving up because it would too hard – in other words: lazy. I have no doubt that there would be revisions and some degree of trial and error before settling on a system that is equally appealing and appalling to all involved. But the core of the matter is college football players generate a lot of wealth but do not partake of any it. That situation should be remedied even if it is complicated and will take some time and thought.
At the very least the guys at Northwestern should be able to go to the doctor in 10 years on the school’s dime. Because repeatedly colliding with other men at full speed is bound to have some long term effects, right?
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.