The movement to unionize college athletes got yet another boost on Tuesday after the NFL Player's Association came out in support for the cause in an an op-ed published yesterday in the Huffington Post. The piece comes just days after op-eds in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal argued against the right of players to unionize.
Written by NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, the piece backs the NCAA players seeking to unionize at Northwestern University—led by quarterback Kain Colter and the College Athletic Players Association (CAPA)—in their core goals: not money, but the ability to negotiate for benefits such as better medical coverage and guaranteed scholarships.
In the more than 100 years since the NCAA was founded, it has not allowed athletes to have a seat at the table to discuss serious issues and therefore has done little to address full medical coverage for injuries sustained, limitations on practice time, scholarship shortfalls and rules to make promised education a reality.
NCAA players seeking to unionize are primarily looking to do so for these very reasons. They are also hoping to establish post-retirement funds that would help players pursue their education after their NCAA eligibility expires.
"This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table," said Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and president of the CAPA, in an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines when the union petition was filed early this year. "Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections."
Historically speaking, there are parallels between the NFLPA and NCAA athletes seeking a union. When the NFL was first founded in the 1950s, players had no post-retirement medical coverage, players had difficulty getting injury protection clauses in their contract honored, and rookies made about $9,000 per year. Today, NCAA athletes are required to have medical coverage that covers athletic injuries (the plans can be provided by and paid for by the student, his or her parents, or the university, as long as he or she can demonstrate coverage). However, the NCAA does not have any requirements regarding how much an individual school must cover, meaning that schools are free to decide what medical expenses from sports injuries it will cover, which, as a 2009 NYTimes article pointed out, has left a lot of athletes with thousands of dollars in medical bills.
Unionizing would help athletes negotiate for such coverage, as the NFLPA has done.
Our union of professional football players stands firmly behind anyone who demands to be heard as a team. Every NFL player — past, present, and future — owes a debt of gratitude to our founders: Frank Gifford, Don Shula, Sam Huff and Norm Van Brocklin, who, in 1956, decided that they wanted to negotiate as a team with NFL owners over cleaner clothes, better work rules, better treatment of injuries and better health care.
The full support of the NFLPA could help raise general public awareness about NCAA athletes trying to unionize. While allowing players a seat at the table of NCAA negotiations might not seem like a radical move, doing so would technically characterize student athletes as “employees.” This could have an impact on O’Bannon v. NCAA, a federal case over whether former student athletes should be compensated for their likeness being used by the organization. As “employees,” O’Bannon’s case grows stronger, and the NCAA financial model would be completely disrupted.