The illusion of the “student-athlete” in big-time college sports was punctured Wednesday when a National Labor Relations Board official ruled that Northwestern University football players were employees with the right to form a union. The team, led by former quarterback Kain Colter and backed by a new college athletes association and the United Steelworkers, was not seeking pay, but better academic conditions and health care for long-term injuries.
In his decision, the NLRB’s Chicago regional director, Peter Ohr, found that athletes who devote 40 to 50 hours a week to the sport “are not primarily students” and scholarships are granted “in exchange for the athletic services being performed.” No matter how noble Northwestern’s 97 percent graduation rate for the team may seem, Ohr said, players’ lives are still “pervasively” controlled by coaches. Colter said he switched from pre-med to a psychology major after being pressured not to take tough courses.
Striking a major rhetorical blow at the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s classic raison d’etre, Ohr wrote that for all of the “great life lessons” football offers in character, dedication, perseverance, and teamwork, they were “insufficient to show that their relationship with the [university] is primary an academic one.” The case has a long way to go, as Northwestern will appeal. And many questions loom as to how the finding could affect non-revenue men’s sports and women’s sports. But one thing is certain: College athletes now have a voice capable of lifting the veil on their exploitation.