College sports and the student athlete



Last week Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, ruled that football players at Northwestern University could unionize. In issuing the ruling, Ohr found that the players were employees of the university.

The ruling sent shock waves reverberating through American higher education since no one expected this outcome. It presumes that Northwestern’s football players are under contract to perform services (letter of intent, scholarship award), subject to the employer’s control (coaching and scholarship rules) and paid for these services (scholarships). As the employer, Northwestern benefited from the revenue made by the football team and received by the school.

The implication for sports teams where revenue does not exceed expenses or for Title IX remains unclear.

In an important way, the Northwestern University ruling represents something far greater than a decision about whether or not athletes at a Division I university can unionize. It speaks to the changing meaning of the term “student athlete” across collegiate sports.

Obviously, only a handful of sports programs – notably in football and basketball – generate the kind of television revenue that make carrying their teams attractive to cable companies buying the network programming. At Division I universities, for example, the ongoing jockeying for improved position as conference members change affiliations suggests the importance of a good “cable” strategy in university athletics.

In the end, it’s not just about the money. Arguably, athletic tradition has always been a kind of glue that builds momentum and good feelings toward the school in the hearts and minds of alumni. It is a source of pride, enhances storied traditions, and deepens brand recognition. Smart presidents often bring their winning coaches or send them as surrogates to alumni events. It’s the coach that many of the alumni actually hope to see at an alumni function or class reunion.

Further, student athletes fill an important enrollment niche joining with legacies and “special case” applicants to form the foundation of an admission recruiting class. In Division III, for example, many small liberal arts colleges use their freshman football recruits as a tool to assist in balancing gender and working toward diversity goals. In competitive programs at smaller Division I schools, the combination of legacies, special case admissions, and student athletes sometimes leaves little room to admit from the rest of the applicant pool.

Ultimately, how selective are these institutions when classes are filled first by these categories? How important are these categories to meeting admission selectivity goals?

The best sports programs offer important lessons that are critical to a residential learning experience. The ability to work collaboratively, learn time management skills, exercise leadership, play competitively but with a sense of ethics are invaluable lessons taken from the fields, courts and pools as part of the overall student learning experience.

College is about what takes place in the classroom. Yet the thousand teachable moments outside class often shape the student’s learning environment in profound ways.

The problem with the Northwestern ruling then is much more complex and global in nature. It raises fundamental questions: What strategic value do student athletes contribute to a college community? Is the very definition of a “student athlete” at risk because of how athletes help shape – and sometimes financially support – the university itself?

Most colleges and universities will never receive the marketing or financial benefits at a successful Division I program or even that occur when a “Cinderella” moment unfolds during March Madness. I was president when Bucknell University beats Kansas, for example, remembering these days among my most fond university experiences.

A chasm exists, however, between the programs at the largest Division I schools, those who emulate them, and the rest of American higher education. The problems are driven by money but also by branding, enrollment needs, alumni satisfaction, and fundraising, among other concerns. It has implications for every college and university in America.

And therein lies the danger. The Northwestern ruling is not ultimately a labor issue. It’s about how sports are played, the price paid for this approach, and whether or not the NCAA will find a way to bridge the growing gap between student and athlete. The NCAA must demonstrate leadership to move beyond enabler to forge a solution to a dilemma that has been a long time in coming.

Northwestern University may have unionized football players, should those eligible to vote decide to do so. It will also survive as one of America’s finest universities against whom most competitors measure themselves. But athletics spills over now into enrollment, alumni relations, marketing and fundraising no matter at what level collegiate sports are played.

How then do we move forward? What happens to a university’s sense of self when amateur athletes become unionized employees?