The “Student” Athlete Dilemma at Major Universities

Columbus African American News Journal

For years, student-athletes at major universities and colleges as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have wrestled over the control of education, schedules and money generated by major athletics. Currently, the NCAA and universities share a few billion dollars generated from college football, both men and women basketball revenues, while the athletes get a scholarship – a “free” education.

However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided in March of this year that football players at Northwestern University were now considered “employees,” giving them authority to unionize.1 The decision illuminated that, in exchange for tuition, meals, room and board, the “students” must spend 50-60 hours per week in football related activities during training camp, dropping to 40-50 hours per week during the regular season,2 and have a relationship with universities more akin to employer-employee.

These activities are beyond academic time, team study halls and traditional student studies. But the NLRB decision prompted Ohio lawmakers to approve a bill amendment that ensures Ohio’s student-athletes are not considered employees.3

So are they students seeking higher education or employees earning profits for university employers and themselves? These two theories seem like a hybrid.

The NCAA reportedly will distribute nearly $200 million generated this year from broadcasting contracts to top-tier conferences participating in its basketball tournament,4 and will reap millions more from bowl games and commercial use of athlete names, images and likenesses.5 These students participate during the traditional academic year.6

Current and former student-athletes in revenue-generating sports7 have raised issues concerning passive dissuasion from attending classes in their preferred academic majors,8 obtaining degrees in limited-value majors,9 long-term healthcare and, yes, obtaining a piece of the money that they help generate.10 Other reports have highlighted academic improprieties and pressure by universities to keep these types of students eligible.11 Despite this, these athletes in large part, are earning valuable degrees from reputable institutions while being spared from the student loans saddling today’s traditional college student.

These issues are legally complex and there is no easy solution for the NCAA, universities and student-athletes. They and the viewing public are in it together, and need to have a serious dialogue rather than a dictatorial resolution.

[1] Northwestern University is appealing the decision, and the players’ vote results is sealed pending appeal.

[2] Northwestern University v. College Athletes Players Ass’n , U.S.N.L.R.B. Case No. 13-RC-121359, p. 6. Activities include games, practices, weight training, film study, medical treatment, and media response. According to the opinion, the off-season schedule is just as grueling.

[3] 130th G.A., Am.Sub.H.B.483, (Amendment HC0548); pending in Ohio Senate.

[4], “How a Single NCAA Tournament Win is Worth $1.6 Million”, March 20, 2014. Additionally, the NCAA’s $10 billion broadcasting deal for its basketball tournament has been widely publicized.

[5] In re NCAA, supra.

[6] Clearly, there are hours also spent during winter and summer breaks when classes are traditionally over.

[7] College football and men’s basketball are generally considered the revenue generating sports, which support athletics and Title IX obligations of major Division 1 universities.

[8] Id. at 11 (then-senior quarterback Kain Colter pursued psychology rather than pre-med due to football schedule conflicts with classes)

[9] HBO Real sports with Bryant Gumbel, “Gaming the System” highlighting Univ. of N.Carolina, Memphis Univ. and Oklahoma Univ.

[10] In re NCAA Student-Athlete name & Likeness Licensing Litigation (Apr. 11, 2014), U.S.Dist.Ct., N.D.Ca., Case No. C 09-1967 CW, Wilkin, C.J.

[11] HBO Real sports with Bryant Gumbel, “Gaming the System”