Unionized College Athletes Might Be What Higher Education Needs


Earlier today a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that student athletes at Northwestern University can organize themselves into a union, giving a victory to the push lead by a former quarterback at the university that was paid for by the United Steelworkers Union.

The university says they’ll appeal the decision to the full NLRB, arguing that students are students and not employees. Which, really, is pretty hard to believe given the way most university athletics programs operate. The universities long ago put academics in the back seat to athletics, recruiting athletes not to educate them but to win ballgames and championships and bring revenues and donations to the universities.

A lot of conservatives don’t like the news, and are criticizing the NLRB for the decision, but I think it was the right one for two reasons.

First, these students have the same right to association as every other American. If they want to form themselves into a union or some other sort of group to negotiate with the universities, more power to them. Our problem isn’t with unions, per se. Our problem is with special treatment for unions.

Second, maybe this will drive sports off campus where they’ve become a major distraction to academics at institutions where the primary mission is supposed to be research and education, not touchdowns and March Madness.

Maybe that’s a pipedream, but America’s obsession with collegiate sports is spiraling out of control. National studies show academic spending taking a back seat to athletic spending. As USA Today reported last year, “At a time of tight budgets throughout higher education, even the nation’s few financially self-sufficient major-college athletics departments are continuing to receive subsidies in the form of student fees, school or state support.”

In forty out of the fifty states the top paid public employee is a sports coach at a university (in all fifty states the top paid public employee works at a university).

That’s ridiculous at a time when higher education costs have spiraled out of control producing academic outcomes that, in a lot of cases, are suspect.

Maybe organized collegiate athletes will break the stranglehold universities have on amateur athletic talent, and push big-time athletics off the campus.