Ask the right questions in student-athlete dilemma

The OlympianApril 3, 2014 

From left, former Northwestern University football quarterback Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma, founder and President of the National College Players Association and Tim Waters, Political Director of the United Steel Workers, arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April, 2, 2014. Members of a group seeking to unionize college athletes are looking for allies on Capitol Hill as they brace for an appeal of a ruling that said full scholarship athletes at Northwestern University are employees who have the right to form a union. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter _ the face of a movement to give college athletes the right to unionize _ and Ramogi Huma, the founder and president of the National College Players Association, scheduled meetings Wednesday with lawmakers.


The National Labor Relations Board ruling to allow Northwestern University football players to form a union stunned the insular world of college athletics. It has triggered a serious and overdue debate on whether NCAA Division I football and basketball players deserve additional compensation.

Unfortunately, of NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr’s ruling has most people asking the wrong questions.

We cannot solve the problems with collegiate athletics – specifically the high revenue sports of football and basketball – by treating student-athletes as professionals. We must instead reestablish the educational mission of our colleges and universities.

It’s true that college football and basketball athletes have been treated differently, and that those sports generate billions of dollars for U.S. universities. So it’s fair to ask if the athletes deserve to share in that good fortune.

The NCAA college basketball tournament, March Madness, generated about $700 million. In most states, like Washington, the head football coach at the largest publicly funded university is the state’s highest paid public employee.

But do these inequities necessarily entail lowering our standards for college and amateur athleticism? Or, does it challenge us to raise those standards to put more emphasis on the “student” in student-athlete?

We believe it’s the latter. Doing anything else will create a Pandora’s box that could shake the foundation of higher education in America, not just college sports.

Many students other than football and basketball players also generate substantial revenue for their schools, and receive comparable merit scholarships as a reward. For example, students participate in academic research projects that attract large grants from foundations and private business.

Treating every student as an employee who plays a role in generating revenue for the school presents myriad unforeseen and unintended consequences.

How did we get to the low point of unionized football teams? Universities and the NCAA, fueled by insatiable fans, have succumbed to greed.

They have conspired to allow players to skip classes, fake coursework and tests, demanded more practice and training room time and overlooked certain personal and criminal indiscretions in order to win games in the escalating arms race with other schools.

Academic fraud among student-athletes is widespread. Boosters at Oklahoma State University were paying athletes up to $25,000 per year under the table. A tutor at the University of Minnesota confessed to authoring more than 400 term papers for student-athletes over a five-year period.

This happens because the NBA and the NFL use NCAA athletic programs as their farm systems. Only Major League Baseball signs players right out of high school, because they have a minor league system.

Some gifted athletes — only 2 percent of college athletes make it professionally – don’t belong in higher education. They have neither the ability or the inclination.

These athletes should be allowed to enter professional drafts right out of high school. If they want more coaching, and the benefit of a college education in case they aren’t good enough or become injured, they should be expected to meet the same standards as other students receiving merit-based scholarships.

Universities shouldn’t exploit a student-athlete’s name or image, as was done in a popular video game. And student-athletes must be allowed to work part-time jobs, as other students do, even if that means signing a jersey for wealthy alumni.

We can get there. But to do so, we must all agree that college athletes are students first, football players second.

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