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Editorial: Big-time college sports exploit athletes

Last week, football players at Northwestern University voted to petition the National Labor Relations Board for employee status, the first step toward becoming a labor union. This is a welcome challenge to the NCAA, a multi-billion-dollar industry that generates revenue for everyone except the players themselves. For too long, the NCAA has hidden behind the “scholar-athlete” identity to justify not paying athletes who may suffer financially and physically during their college years. As controversy surrounding the NCAA and its tax-exempt status grows, it is time to recognize big-time college athletes as the moneymakers they are and compensate and protect them accordingly.

Alongside the Northwestern news came revelations about athletics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where a well-known professor was recently indicted for running courses that did not actually exist for football players. The New York Times reported that the fraudulent activity, which may have been going on since 1997, involved dozens of classes and hundreds of grade changes. Further, reading specialist Mary Willingham recently alleged that over eight years of researching UNC basketball and football players, she discovered that 60 percent of the players read at between a fourth- and an eighth-grade reading level, and 10 percent were below a third-grade reading level. Such stories directly contradict the justification that big-time college athletes operate as “scholar-athletes” and that the college education they are receiving is compensation enough.

The NLRB will consider the petition of the Northwestern students in the wake of a recent movement to unionize among graduate students at New York University, where students leaders are planning to sign a contract despite a 2004 NLRB ruling in a Brown case that graduate students are ineligible for collective bargaining rights. In any case, it is clear that big-time college athletes generate far more money, and based on the UNC case are receiving far less educational training, than can be accurately encompassed in the “student-athlete” relationship.

In a broader sense, as NCAA scandals continue to surface, we must consider why this multi-billion-dollar industry is allowed to use academia as a shield from taxes and stronger oversight. While college baseball does exist, the MLB supports minor league teams, which pay their unionized players salaries and give them other protections. In contrast, both the NFL and the NBA essentially use college teams as a de facto farm industry, absolving themselves of responsibility for protecting up-and-coming athletes physically and monetarily. As more information about the risk of head injuries in football specifically begins to pile up, it has become more and more obvious that student-athletes are taking on significant risks for which they deserve compensation.

The NLRB should recognize the Northwestern athletes for the workers they are, and begin the conversation about how they can be appropriately compensated and protected. Further, it is time to consider the cost of having a ruthless industry tar the good name of American universities, and whether the power of the NCAA has begun to detract from the mission of American universities altogether.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to



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