Latest update on this story [8-18-15]: The football players voted on unionization in April 2014, and the ballot box was immediately impounded by Northwestern University & the NCAA. The votes still haven’t been counted, so the reformists don’t know what to do. 
Ed O’Bannon won his case, in a ruling that states college athletes can now share in the billions of dollars they generate annually. The ruling is being appealed by lawyers for the NCAA.
The NLRB decided not to approve the Northwestern University football players request to form a union, and this issue will likely eventually go to the Supreme Court.
The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, Peter Sung Ohr, ruled on Wednesday March 26 that Northwestern University football players are university employees.
Employees are legally entitled to be paid and to bargain collectively.
The NCAA is a billion-dollar entertainment industry, which has had the advantage of virtually free labor for its entire existence. In a court of law, this brings up anti-trust and worker’s rights legal challenges, which are coming to a head with this landmark ruling by Judge Ohr. Ohr ruled that the primary function of the Northwestern football players is to make money for Northwestern University. The Northwestern football players proved in court that the Wildcats coaches have strict control over their schedules and lives. Scholarships are contingent on athletic performance. This defines them as employees, and renders the NCAA definition of ‘student-athlete’ irrelevant.
This case is being merged with the Ed O’Bannon case and other high-profile legal action against the NCAA, in order to address the exploitation of scholarship athletes. It is being limited in scope to private universities and (as of this writing) only includes football & men’s basketball. If the Northwestern football players win, it would set a precedent that state universities and all of men’s college basketball would have to follow, due to fundamental to free market principles.
Allowing ALL the best high-school athletes in ALL sports to be free agents, with the right to collectively negotiate employer contracts with universities, would be a revolutionary worker’s victory. What is being crafted is a reformist solution, fronted by Ramogi Huma and backed by the United Steel Workers union leader Leo Gerard. Gerard is intimately tied to the Democratic Party machine and organized crime. Unions need to be understood as nothing more than legalized mafias.
Limiting this case to only football and men’s basketball, the two highest revenue-generating sports, is a conscious ruling-class decision designed to keep the process from spinning out of their control. “Limiting this case gives us the strongest case”, Ramogi explained. What he fails to mention is that lack of strength is not the problem, as most legal experts now agree that Ohr’s decision will be difficult to overturn on argumentative grounds.
The NCAA & Northwestern University have mostly declined comment on any of the legal proceedings, and the few statements from their spokespeople are widely interpreted as red herrings or insubstantial. This case wins on the same argumentative grounds if it includes all scholarship athletes.
So why doesn’t it?
It’s because the issues involved go to the heart of capitalist values, while touching a nerve of personal interest for sports fans. Bringing sports into any discussion, especially a political one, generally primes people to begin screaming & cheerleading instead of thinking about what’s going on. That is the nature of sports, and that’s the danger for scholarship athletes; they’ll lose perspective through the hype.
Many U.S. college graduates are passionate alumni. They particularly cheer its athletics, and many donate to its success. It’s a primary reason a significant percentage matriculate to a particular institution. In the end, success in football and men’s basketball is a vicarious pleasure for alumni; a point of pride that drives it. That, and the fact that it makes billions of dollars annually.
College sports is also a job for EVERY scholarship athlete, which they can not quit without losing their benefits. Basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, tennis, etc.. men’s & women’s; they’re all the same.
The ridiculousness of the NCAA’s insistence on defining scholarship athletes as ‘amateurs’ can be drawn out in an analogy with academic scholarships. Academic scholarship students are allowed to attain employment while in school. Many do. Imagine a math major not being able to accept a private tutoring job, because she is defined by the university as an ‘amateur.’ By NCAA rules, if this hypothetical math genius takes the job and is found out, her scholarship is lost. Clearly the rules & institutions for college athletics have become archaic, but what do we replace them with?
The modest proposal from what’s left of liberalism, is mostly an attempt to confuse and disorient these young exploited workers. It’s handling is important to the ruling class because this is happening at institutions of higher learning, where revolutionary ideas & impulses can spread quickly. Scholarship athletes still largely have open minds, and that is understood as a danger to elite opinion.
If the current agenda of Huma Ramogi and his Democratic Party backers win their way through the courts, then little will change for most university scholarship athletes in football & basketball. The black market pay-for-play system will simply be converted into an open market pay-for-play system. The few top recruits that receive large university contracts will make the headlines, but the new revenue sharing deal with the NCAA and the universities will mostly flow to union bureaucrats and machinery. Very little money will flow down to less talented players or to other sports, since they were never part of the discussion.
What needs to be done is the organizing of ALL scholarship athletes, across the U.S. & beyond, into their own union. Athletes need to be their own leaders and represent themselves, otherwise few of their grievances will be addressed. What can Leo Gerard & the Steel Workers Union possibly understand about the lives of college athletes? Can these athletes trust the SWU leader, who has facilitated a list of corporate mergers which have destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process, to represent their interests? These questions need to be asked & rationally answered, out loud.
University athletic programs will be shuttered whether this case is upheld or overturned, due to the depressed condition of the free market. This modest proposal as-is will only accelerate that process, as open bidding will allow the biggest conferences to monopolize the best talent. Those smaller conferences and institutions that can’t pay the market rate for athletic talent will wither & die.
Every university should have a competitive athletic program that: 1) fairly compensates athletes with full employee rights; 2) does everything possible to protect athletes from injury; 3) treats the athlete for as long as necessary when injury does occur; 4) allows the athlete time to finish his/her education, even after their playing eligibility expires.
This can only happen if ALL college athletes unite democratically under their own leadership.