There has long been a debate on the issue of whether college student athletes should be compensated for their contributions to their universities.
Traditionally, student athletes at private universities are given a scholarship to attend the university, usually a full ride that includes tuition, books, fees, and room and board, in exchange for being a part of the school’s athletic program. These student athletes do not receive any other monetary compensation for the sports that they play. They are not even permitted hold the intellectual property rights to their name, image or likeness while attending the university; instead the school holds those rights.
These student athletes work anywhere from 20-50 hours per week practicing their sport and playing in games, all while taking university classes. They bring in millions of dollars in revenue to their schools, through ticket sales, commercial deals, promotions and even through licensing the use of the student athletes’ names or image intellectual property rights for third party commercial purposes. The students never see a dime for their efforts, besides their scholarships.
The debate surrounding whether college athletes are technically employees of the universities that they attend saw an unprecedented ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago this past week, which supports the position that the student athletes are in fact employees. CNN reports that the NLRB ruled that football players at Northwestern University are employees of the university and therefore are permitted to unionize.
The NLRB ruled that the footballers are employees and are union eligible because the players put in part-time to full-time hours and each player’s scholarship is directly tied to his performance on the field. Drawing a similarity to how workers are compensated based on their performance, the NLRB held that the players’ compensation for their work takes the form of scholarships, thereby making them employees of the university. The average annual tuition at the school is approximately $63,000/year and these student athletes are receiving this sum as a scholarship.
In order to be an employee, a person must be 1) under a contract to 2) perform services for another, 3) while being subject to the employer’s control, and 4) in exchange for compensation. This legal definition seems to apply to Northwestern’s football players.
This ruling has upset many people who believe that this is an abuse of unionization rules. Unions are designed to protect workers from exploitative labor practices, and many people are confused as to how college students who have a full ride at Northwestern are being exploited. The case will likely be appealed by Northwestern University, but resolution of the matter may take a long time.
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