College Athletes Are Not Employees

A unionization effort gets sacked.

Photographer: Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Faced with a question that didn't belong before it in the first place -- are students on athletic scholarships employees of the colleges they play for? -- the National Labor Relations Board has unanimously decided to follow the most sensible option: It punted.

Football players at Northwestern University who had earned scholarships (worth about $61,000 annually) argued that they are employees with organizing rights. Under NCAA rules, athletic scholarships have long served as one-year contracts that were renewed by coaches -- or not. If an athlete didn't perform up to expectations or got injured, his or her scholarship could be revoked -- and with it, any hope of completing school and earning a diploma. It has been far too easy for schools to treat scholarship athletes as contractors rather than as students, leading to cries of exploitation -- and a push for labor rights.

QuickTake College Sports

Last year, the regional director of the labor relations board sided with the Northwestern players, concluding that the potential revocation of scholarships constituted a coercive relationship. It was surely no coincidence that, several months after his ruling, the Big Ten conference, which includes Northwestern, became the first to guarantee athletic scholarships for four years.

Earlier this year, the five major conferences (over the objections of the Southeastern and Big 12 conferences) followed the Big Ten's lead. They also began allowing schools to provide scholarship athletes with several thousand dollars in living expenses. That change came after a federal judge recommended such a policy last summer, as part of a decision striking down the NCAA's prohibition on athletes profiting from the use of their names and images.

Those moves by the NCAA made it easier for the NLRB to avoid ruling on the merits of the Northwestern case. The board concluded that because it governs only private employers, and because the vast majority of major college football programs are at public institutions, a ruling "would not promote stability in labor relations." In other words, a finding in favor of the football players would have upset the level playing field -- at least in terms of labor law -- that exists for public and private schools.

True enough, though the board could have gone further by concluding that college athletes are not employees with organizing rights. That doesn't mean, however, that student-athletes don't have real concerns. They do, particularly concerning health care. And it shouldn't take a federal lawsuit or another union organizing effort for the NCAA to listen.

Students who attend college on athletic scholarships -- whether for football, bass fishing or any other sport -- have made a commitment to their schools. The best way for colleges to honor that commitment is to show at least as much interest in educating those students as they did in recruiting them.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.