Northwestern University’s football team has broken new ground in the contentious world of collegiate athletics. Its effort to form the first-ever college athletes’ union, which would allow student-athletes to collectively bargain with universities, is being fronted by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and Ramogi Huma, president of the nonprofit National College Players Association. Together, they have formed the College Athletes Players Association, which aims to bargain with schools and the NCAA to better protect players’ health and well-being for both the short- and long-term.
Representatives from the union argue that college athletes, especially in money-generating sports like football and basketball, should be regarded as employees of their universities, and be granted better health insurance coverage for potential injuries suffered at practice and during games, extending even after graduation.
The National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled in favor of the players, regarding them as employees of the colleges and allowing their case to move forward.
The union said it does not plan to bargain for universities to play players. Instead, the players are seeking better healthcare benefits as part of scholarship packages. As the rules stand, it is possible for an athlete who has suffered an injury that renders him or her unable to compete to lose their scholarship and be forced to pay for their own healthcare treatment for the injury.
Collective bargaining came about at the turn of the century as a means by which laborers and workers could better the conditions of their employment. Industrial facilities have the responsibility to keep their employees safe despite more dangerous working conditions, all separate from workers’ salaries. What difference is there between workers at a nuclear power plant or an offshore oil rig and full-contact college athletes? In this context, couldn’t this also apply to Temple’s own discontinued athletic programs?
From my perspective, it does not look like a collective bargaining agreement could have saved Temple’s cut sports. Temple does business with a multitude of union organizations, from teachers, to nurses, janitorial staff and security. Hypothetically, it could bargain collectively with student-athletes in the same way if such a union existed. As any other company would, Temple would consider every solution possible before termination of employment.
But no employment is ironclad, and many job cuts come at no fault of either employee or employer. Regardless of whether the hospital nurses, professors or food service workers are under collective bargaining units, sometimes jobs must be eliminated.
One way in which union contracts would improve the current situation is that after a round of layoffs, those that have lost their jobs often have the first opportunity to reclaim their slashed positions. Hypothetically, a union could ensure that if the university had the funds to expand, it might be required to funnel that capital back into discontinued sports programs.
Luke Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.