In Our View: Decision a Game-Changer

Ruling saying college athletes can form union may get NCAA to tackle key issues

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As anybody with even a passing interest in sports is aware, big-time college programs are big-time businesses.

For example, according to USA Today, publicly available data indicates that the University of Washington athletic department generated $85 million in revenue in 2012. That might sound like an unfathomable amount, yet it ranked only 27th among all colleges — and the University of Texas led the way with $166 million in revenue. In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports agreed to pay $11 billion — that’s with a “B” — for the rights to televise the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for 14 years. And a new college football playoff starting next year has drawn a $7.3 billion TV contract for 36 games over a 12-year period.

The only thing that is amateurish about college sports is the athletes, who don’t receive a salary, and that is why a recent ruling has sent shockwaves through the sports world. A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players who are on scholarship are university employees and should have the right to unionize.

To be sure, the final buzzer on this issue remains far off. The ruling for now applies only to Northwestern, a private school in Evanston, Ill. At most, the decision could be expanded to cover other private universities, and there are only 17 of those that compete at the highest level in college football. Yet the ruling has helped trigger a discussion that needs to be held, renewing the debate about whether college athletes should be paid, about whether they should share in the vast revenue they help generate for their universities.

Scholarship athletes are, in one sense, well-compensated. At the big-time programs, athletes receive free tuition and free books, get stipends to help pay for room and board, and are privy to extensive assistance in scheduling classes and handling their course work. As the ruling from the labor board states, football players sign contracts (for a scholarship) that define benefits and dictate their schedules. They also are subject to dismissal from that contract, as athletic scholarships are renewable on a year-by-year basis.

In exchange for that, a successful athletic program — especially in football and men’s basketball — can generate revenue for the athletic department and raise the profile of the entire university. Until 15 years ago, Gonzaga was a nondescript university in Spokane; largely because of a successful men’s basketball program, it now is well-known in every corner of the country.

The attempt to unionize at Northwestern — an effort backed by money from The United Steelworkers — is focused upon health benefits. The players are seeking extended medical coverage for former players with football-related injuries, more attention to the long-term impact of concussions, and financial aid for athletes to finish school. Given the physical demands of football and what we are learning about the long-term effects of the sport, these seem to be reasonable demands. And in pursuing them, the athletes could change the landscape of college sports.

Should athletes be paid? Is it reasonable to tell football players to be happy with a scholarship when their coach is making $5 million a year? Why are colleges in the business of providing de facto minor leagues for the NFL and the NBA anyway? NCAA officials long have attempted to ignore these questions. They might not be able to for much longer.