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Karen Hitchcock: Problems With Big-Time College Sports - Are Unions The Answer?

On March 26, 2014, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Sung Ohr, issued a ruling which has sent shock waves throughout the world of big-time college sports.  In short, he ruled that football players receiving full scholarships at the Big Ten school, Northwestern University, qualify as employees and are, therefore, able to unionize under federal law. Northwestern, as expected, has formally requested a review of this decision, a ruling which has engendered spirited debates around the country. On the one hand, Northwestern football players cite the requirements and restrictions applied to them as scholarship-holding  athletes, conditions which they feel render them de facto employees, while Northwestern contends that  college athletes are students, first and foremost, and therefore do not qualify as employees. 

And yet, as pointed out in an opinion by the Editorial Board of the New York Times,  “[In the month]before college is even in session, Northwestern football players spend up to 60 hours a week practicing … ; during the three- or four-month football season, they put in up to 50 hours a week  preparing for games. That’s more time than many full-time employees devote to their jobs.” On these grounds alone, it is hard to imagine football players as the “student-athletes” long described by the N.C.A.A. They clearly look much more like individuals recruited simply to perform the function of playing a sport – that is, like an employee.  If it looks like a duck...

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Joe Nocera made the following observation, “ Maybe [this] is what the Ohr decision really represents: a government acknowledgement that college sports is not what it once was, and that no amount of N.C.A.A. propaganda can hide the money-soaked reality anymore.”

The debate over the role of academics versus sports at our nation’s universities and in the life of our college athletes, especially those playing big time football and basketball, is longstanding.   I still remember an exchange I had with the late Andy Rooney at a New York Giants event shortly after their arrival on our campus. While he was extremely complimentary to me on our success in attracting his favorite team to the UAlbany campus for their summer camp, he did take the occasion to bemoan the emphasis placed on sports at colleges and universities, even at Division II and III schools, an emphasis he felt was misplaced and injurious to the educational mission as athletically-gifted students were recruited at the expense, he thought, of the intellectually-gifted. I then shared with him UAlbany’s decision that season not to recruit the most in-demand high school basketball player in our region because he did not meet our academic standards. In a word, he was astounded; and, to his credit, cited UAlbany as an exception to the dangerous trend that concerned him, and which was the subject of his newspaper column that week.

Indeed, the issue before us is much deeper than simply the employment status of our universities’ football players.  Some, including William G. Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton and the Andrew W. Melon Foundation, feel we must scale back the intensity of college sports, including the salaries of our coaches, if we are to avoid further rulings like that issued to Northwestern. I respectfully disagree. I think the time is past for such an approach. It is, in my view, unrealistic to assume that, voluntarily, the leadership of  extremely lucrative, big-time athletic programs will make choices that will put at risk their competitive position.

Many of the problems we see in big-time college sports are due, I feel, to the fact that our nation’s campuses serve as the required route to participation in professional football and, to a large extent, basketball.  As opposed to the farm team model utilized by baseball, our talented young athletes who wish to play football or basketball professionally must first enroll as “student athletes” at a university, whether or not they are qualified for admission – a practice not, as pointed out by Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation,  required of our fledgling actors or musicians. However, he goes on to say that to completely “untie the knot” between colleges and professional football will surely “disrupt the economics of both college and professional sports.” 

We clearly need to conceive a new model for the development of our young athletes – perhaps a hybrid model where a separate corporate entity could be established to serve as the “employer” of those athletes not qualified for college admission, athletes who would play alongside enrolled “student-athletes” who would retain student status, and receive scholarships, stipends and medical benefits equivalent in value to the “salaries” and medical benefits paid to the athletes designated as “employees.”  While this model would not address all the issues facing college sports, it would, at least, allow for integrity in the admissions process, and preserve the rigor of the institution’s academic programs and its system of student evaluation.

At the end of the day, the importance of the ruling by the National Labor Relations Board may well be the light it has shined on many of the problems inherent in college sports.  Whatever the outcome, our athletic programs and our “student-athletes” will be better for this enhanced scrutiny. 

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.