Northwestern football — the struggle for power in collegiate athletics

by Thor Thompson

There has always been a debate about whether college athletes deserve to share in the massive amounts of money that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) brings in, and to most the idea of a full-ride scholarship in addition to the fame of being an athlete was reward enough. However, when the money keeps growing and the compensation stays the same, the time for change has come. The NCAA generated $989 million for fiscal year 2014, according to an audited financial statement released by the NCAA. $80.5 million of that was recorded as a surplus after expenses, which is the fourth straight year of over $60 million of surplus money for the association according to an article in USA Today in March of 2015.

These statistics are not the whole picture, merely an illustration of how much money is actually being brought in and “claimed” by the top Division I athletic schools, often referred to as the “Power 5” conferences: The Big Ten, Atlantic Coastal Conference, Big 12, PAC 12, and Southeastern Conference. The schools that make up these conferences don’t do too badly for themselves either, with the top 20 revenue-generating schools raking in more than $100 million before expenses.

Even with all the money coming in, there is mounting concern about paying student-athletes or allowing them to unionize and collectively negotiate terms to better serve them both while still in school and for their future. Progress has been slow, but with a ruling in the Ed O’Bannon case, players’ rights are changing for the better. In O’Bannon’s case the players were not allowed to profit off their own names, which were being used in video games, jersey sales and other merchandise. As ridiculous as that sounds, the NCAA has rules in place to preserve the amateur label of student-athletes, which makes sense. However, not changing these rules to evolve with the game and life in general leaves these players in the Stone Age of representation and without proper compensation for their hard work, practice/training time, and sacrifice of their bodies.

The main concern for student-athletes now is increasing their say in rules involving player safety, long-term health care, and having an opportunity to share in the enormous profits that these universities and the NCAA are bringing in.

The latest roadblock to this increased say came on Aug. 17 in the form of the National Labor Relations Board’s decision to defer jurisdiction over the case that Northwestern University football players brought forth for union election.

The reasons for the denial are fundamentally sound, though. The panel of five judges stated unanimously that ruling in favor of the players would not promote “stability in labor relations”, as well as giving Northwestern an unfair advantage over the other state-run schools of the Big Ten and other major universities in the “Power 5” conferences. However, by not ruling that the student-athletes could not be deemed employees of the university, the National Board did leave the door open for further appeals to their ruling.

The union faces opposition from Northwestern and most other big-name schools in Division I athletics in addition to the Labor Board. A statement from the university said they did not believe this was the best way for college athletes to address the concerns they have and that they are glad that the National Labor Review Board agreed with them.

Of course, this comes as no surprise. Those who benefit from the status quo almost always oppose change. However, in order to preserve the game and ensure that the best athletes continue to play these sports, there need to be changes made. These student-athletes have no guarantees that they will earn a living playing the sport they excel in. As far as the “free-ride” education is concerned, there have been many examples of players and universities cheating the system to keep players eligible. They also don’t have the same opportunities as other students to work at internships and study due to the major time commitments athletics require. These sports often amount to a full-time job, and as such it is easy to understand making a case for the student-athletes to be deemed as employees of a university.

Beyond that, the amount of money and publicity that student-athletes and sports bring to a university is a form of currency in itself, currency that never finds its way to the players who play a huge role in earnings. A winning team can bring in the casual fan or even energize the most avid followers who can generate huge amounts of revenue.

Even though the fight to unionize hasn’t been won yet, the changes are starting to come. Cost of attendance stipends are being offered more frequently to athletes, which is money that goes to expenses beyond tuition — fees, books, room and board. Locally, North Dakota State University just made a big splash by announcing it will be offering an additional $3,400 to scholarship athletes. This makes them just the second Division I FCS school to offer such a stipend and aims at alleviating some stress from student-athletes’ lives.

Some conferences and individual schools are looking to bolster the health care that is offered to athletes, and scholarships are being guaranteed for the full four years of eligibility for student athletes. Most schools are not required to insure these athletes unless the medical bills reach $90,000 or more, and beyond that if the athlete is injured he or she may lose their scholarship. The PAC 12 recently added insurance for four years after graduation for its student athletes, but even PAC 12 Commissioner Larry Scott says that enforcement of this rule is left up to the schools themselves. An article from VICE from Nov. 5, 2015 says it best, “insuring athletes after they graduate is a choice not a requirement.”

While the changes are a sign of progress, the power of these student-athletes should not be underestimated. In order to make the necessary changes and ensure the NCAA and its rules properly represent the student-athletes, there may be more drastic measures that need to be considered.

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