OLIVER: Student athletes deserve the ability to unionize

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Eric Oliver

eric oliverAfter an extensive search, I’ve found the ultimate unpaid internship: becoming a student athlete.

Athletes put in long hours while the National Collegiate Athletic Association and universities make billions of dollars off their work. The NCAA also likes to sell things that feature their athletes’ likenesses and names, but it doesn’t pay them a cent for it. The athletes do all this, not for the thanks or praise, but for the chance to have something better: a professional, money-laden career. The only thing missing is fetching coffee everyday, which I’m admittedly very good at.

The good news is this might start to change because of a 24-page ruling by Peter Ohr, of the regional National Labor Relations Board.  The ruling granted Northwestern University’s scholarship football and basketball players the right to unionize and begin working toward a central bargaining agreement.

The university is expected to appeal the ruling, citing its athletes aren’t employees but students with some extra responsibilities, which will add a few more months into the mix before the Wildcats can form their union.

But if they win, which I hope and expect them to, this will be a blow to the expectedly disappointed NCAA. The NCAA holds that its athletes are students first and athletes second, and although that’s a cute catchphrase, that’s all it is.

On top of their commitment to sports, student athletes have to manage a course load, but the amount of work they put in outside of the classroom can’t be ignored like it currently is.

When you’re putting 40 to 50 hours a week  into your unpaid internship and your work is selling for millions of dollars through media contracts, ticket sales and marketing, some of that money should come back to you. After all, without you on the field, universities and the NCAA would make nothing.

That’s why the Wildcat’s decision to pursue unionization is important. Even if these athletes make minimum wages, it’s better than making absolutely nothing.

What I hope to see is this: Northwestern players get the right to unionize and other teams follow suit, finally compensating student athletes with money, even if it’s just minimum wage. The NCAA devises a new system to deal with equal pay throughout college sports to avoid the creation of a new recruiting system. If that fails, some argue a new athletic association will have to be formed consisting of the unionized schools to avoid an unfair advantage in recruiting practices.

Unfortunately, there is one proposed system that I don’t want to see, and that is the contract system. If the unions decide to work on a contracted basis, that changes everything. If schools can start recruiting on the basis of money alone, say goodbye to the underdog. Big money sports programs find such success because they can lure in coaches, get top prospects with amazing facilities and great training staffs. If we let recruiters buy the future, we might as well eliminate the student portion of student athletics and make the NCAA into a collegiate minor league.

Unpaid internships are the worst; unpaid internships where you’re worth millions of dollars but you get none of it, are the worst of the worst. As far as this discussion goes, student athletes deserve compensation, and they deserve it now.

Athletes pours their hearts and souls into the game, and although some get a free education, the university and NCAA make a lot more off of them than they get in return. Yes, it’s a shot at the future, but it comes at a cost that is incredibly disproportionate to the present.