A new chapter in the pay to play debate

It was a decision that could change college athletics forever.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Northwestern University football players have the right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining by virtue of being a university employee.

The decision will undoubtedly be appealed, but in the meantime, the case has renewed the debate over whether or not college student-athletes should be paid to play.

Some would argue that as a scholarship athlete at a prestigious university the tuition, room and board and other perks of being part of the team amount to being paid.

If a student-athlete graduates from even a state university on a four-year scholarship, they have saved well over $100,000 in college costs while earning a valuable degree.

At the same time, a student-athlete with the time demands of a major athletic program in addition to class schedules has little to no opportunity to have a part-time job or earn even a little spending money; so it is not uncommon for athletes whose parents have few resources to walk around campus with empty pockets.

But the greater argument put before the NLRB was the number of hours required by college athletes to participate in their sports, along with the potential for injury.

Those factors, combined with the amount of money brought into universities through athletics swayed the decision in favor of the athletes.

Television contracts alone are worth as much as $16 billion to universities, not to mention ticket and merchandise sales, championship revenues and sponsorships.

It may seem unfair at times that college football players who help bring in the majority of athletic revenue are limited in their personal financial benefit, while the fruits of their “labor” support the rest of the sports programs on campus.

But … if universities are required to pay student athletes beyond their education, what would happen to the non-revenue sports? How would salaries be determined, and how would the new system impact women’s athletics and Title IX?

These are just a few of the questions to be considered as this intriguing court case moves forward, likely to the Supreme Court.

In the overall scheme of college athletics, a very small percentage of athletes have the opportunity to get rich playing their sport. Many have, however, earned degrees and found success through the doors opened through collegiate athletics, an industry that generates billions of dollars through those very athletes.

The NLRB decision regarding Northwestern only applies to private institutions, but could easily open the door to a larger discussion, and a potential new normal that will have the challenge of balancing fairness for athletes with the potential of taking away the very opportunities collegiate athletics provide.

College sports may become a whole new ballgame.

Kellie Goodman-Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.