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Column: In light of Northwestern football's unionizing attempt, should we reconsider the NCAA's business model?

An unprecedented move in NCAA history, the Northwestern University football team sought legal recognition as a worker’s union, attempting to become the first collegiate organization to do so. The case was first brought to a regional board of the National Labor Relations Bureau in early February, and as of this past Wednesday, an NLRB official deemed the players eligible to form a union. The argument provided to the board largely hinges around the heavy commitment required for Division I football and the perception of athletic scholarships as a form of payment.

Spearheading the movement are former UCLA linebacker (and current head of the National College Players Association) Ramogi Huma and Northwestern’s senior quarterback Kain Colter. Huma and Colter insist that the decision to attempt unionization stems not from any perceived wrongdoings by Northwestern itself. Rather, Colter claims that they’re fighting because “The NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents [the players] in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if the players have a union.”

Naturally, the NCAA and Northwestern have responded less than favorably to this attempt to shift the power dynamics of college sports. Both organizations have released statements denouncing the board’s ruling, and Northwestern last week submitted an appeal to the NLRB hoping to overturn the ruling. However, many legal analysts are projecting that the decision is unlikely to be overturned, which could result in the first of perhaps a long string of challenges against the system, which Colter took upon himself to fight.

Indeed, the controversy has centered less on Northwestern itself and instead on the way in which the NCAA views its main sources of revenue: the players themselves. Quite telling are the respective statements that the two organizations gave in response to the ruling. Northwestern promoted the fact that they “love and are proud of their students” and, no matter what, are “committed to the health, safety and academic success of … its student athletes.” The NCAA tried more to distance itself from the issues of the players, with its chief legal officer, Donald Remy, claiming that “this union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education … We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”

At first glance, professionalization is the root of the NCAA’s protests, given that it is an organization centered around amateur sports. But, to quote a column Daily Princetonian Associate Sports Editor Eddie Owens penned last week, “The ideal of amateurism the NCAA clings to is a relic of a bygone era.” Collegiate athletics is not just a hobby; it’s a multibillion-dollar industry where the primary revenue-generators receive far less than the money they funnel in. Many claim that a corporation that makes an appeal to amateurism and still lined its pockets with over $800 million in revenue in 2012 reaches a new height in hypocrisy.

Despite pressure from all sides, the NCAA remains firm in its commitment to the “traditional” model of college sports. In an interview this past weekend, NCAA president Mark Emmert responded to the outcry that the organization was exploiting student-athletes for its own benefit. Though admitting that the NCAA system would benefit from changes, including an increased forum for student voices and the allocation of a “miscellaneous stipend fund” for student-athletes, Emmert insisted on the importance of “maintain[ing] the collegiate model, that we see [these players] as students, not employees.” He claimed that the choice came down to seeing student-athletes as “unionized employees of the university, or college students playing games.”

This choice, as presented by Emmert, does not quite capture the whole situation. If we accept that big-time collegiate sports no longer follow any traditional notion of amateurism, then Emmert’s invoking this idea that NCAA sports is just “college students playing games” does not show naïveté; it shows callousness. Even with Emmert’s point that “the revenue stream … is passed down to [all its members’ schools,]” as long as that money fails to make its way down to the players, the system of free labor perpetuates itself.

As the NCAA wraps up its most lucrative event in March Madness, we must not forget the struggle under the surface. It is not so much about turning off the TV to protest against the NCAA but rather remaining mindful of what exactly makes our entertainment possible.

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