Student-athletes are workers, too

The Northwestern University football players will exercise their right to vote on April 25 to form a union or not. This historic vote comes after the National Labor Relations Board ruled March 28 that these players had the right to unionize, which includes collective bargaining rights.

These players, who formed the College Athletes Players Association, had issued a complaint before the NLRB that their academics were suffering from 50-hour-a-week football practices.

Thousands of players in state-run colleges and in private colleges and universities like Northwestern receive no compensation for injuries they suffer during practices or games. College players are not paid a wage they can live on or benefits like health care. Some, especially football and basketball players, produce billions of dollars in revenue and profits for their schools.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and its top managers gain the most from this exploitation of student athletes. NCAA president Mark Emmert was paid nearly $2 million last year in salary and compensation. Emmert has taken a union-busting view.

Even before the April 25 vote, Emmert and the NCAA hierarchy are attempting to dilute this struggle for union rights for players. On April 15, the NCAA’s legislative council announced a proposal to remove meal and snacks restrictions for Division I athletes.

The proposal was, no doubt, prompted by the public revelation made by Shabazz Napier, the University of Connecticut basketball guard whose team won this year’s national championship, that he has gone to bed hungry. Napier’s statement exposed the fact that these athletes, who burn an extraordinary amount of calories, are malnourished.

The vote on this proposal is scheduled to take place by the NCAA Board of Directors on April 24, one day before the Northwestern vote. The NCAA understands the significance of the April 25 union vote and is feeling the heat from below.

As Tyler Conway, a featured writer for Bleacher Report, stated, “There is no way unlimited meals can make up for the billions of dollars made off unpaid athletes, and it’s possible it will do little to calm the wave of litigation currently facing the NCAA.” (April 15)

The NCAA made over $921 million last year in revenue; 84 percent of that came from contracts with CBS and Turner networks for broadcasting three weeks of March Madness — the Division I men’s national tournament. (, March 27) This nearly $1 billion industry is rooted in the super-exploitation of student-athletes, a large majority being people of color and from poor and working-class backgrounds.

If these athletes withheld their ability to perform with work stoppages or strikes similar to workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage around the U.S., they could force a corporate giant like the NCAA to the bargaining table. The question is not whether it will happen, but when.

These student-athletes deserve our political solidarity like all workers on May Day and every day.