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Editorial: Allowing athletes to unionize is a good first step towards fair treatment

By Editorial Board
On April 13, 2014

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players can unionize and collectively bargain with the school for working rights. In order to do so, they will first need to vote for unionization, but according to "Sports Illustrated" legal analyst Michael McCann, the football team almost certainly has the necessary threshold of support. This decision was very controversial, as some people felt it infringed on the amateur status of collegiate athletes. However, it is a good first step, as it will lead to necessary discussions about fair relations with college student-athletes.
According to regional director Peter Sung Ohr, there were several reasons why Northwestern players were allowed to unionize. Ohr reported that during the academic year players devote between 40 and 50 hours per week to football, some of which are not countable under the NCAA's 20 hour per week limit for "countable athletically related activities." Even so-called "optional" workouts are monitored for attendance and players who do not attend may be penalized with reduced playing time. The Northwestern athletic department must approve any outside work the players wish to do, restricting them from seeking other employment.
As a result of unionization, players will be able to negotiate these principles with the athletic department of the university. Many players are unable to study as much as they need to for exams because they are required to devote up to 50 hours per week for football, more than they would for a typical full-time job. Some people have suggested that one aspect of collective bargaining would allow players to skip practice to study. This would help them secure jobs after graduation, since the vast majority of Northwestern football players will never play in the NFL.
Additionally, they could bargain for the right to have outside work without being subject to restrictions from the athletic department. This would allow them to earn money for at least some work they do.
This ruling will only affect private schools such as Northwestern and as a result will have no direct impact on student-athletes at UConn. This is because government institutions are not governed by the NLRB. However, the decision will, barring successful appeal, apply to other private schools such as Notre Dame and the University of Southern California, both of which have football teams that are far more prominent and successful than Northwestern's. As a result, this could be the start of a monumental change in the way the NCAA does business. The Northwestern ruling got the ball rolling and we hope that the discussion will continue in further negotiations.  


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