Running head: literature review: unionization in college athletics

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Literature Review: Unionization in College Athletics

Todd Thobe

Dr. Abrahamowicz

Wright State University
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is comprised of more than 1,200 schools, reaching nearly 460,000 student-athletes across the nation. According to, this membership driven organization is devoted to upholding the well being of student-athletes and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing surface, in the classroom and throughout life. In 1906, 13 colleges and institutions came together under the name, Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), which eventually changed in 1910 to NCAA. As both, athletics and college programs grew, the NCAA quickly adapted from a “discussion and rule making group”, to the Championship producing, governing body that it is today.

In the early 1950’s a collegiate football player, Ernest Nemeth, at the University of Denver challenged the state of Colorado. Nemeth felt he should be eligible to receive workers compensation for a serious injury that kept him from playing the rest of the season. The state awarded Nemeth, declaring him an “employee” of the university and said he should be awarded compensation. Then NCAA Executive Director, Walter Byers, quickly coined the term “student-athlete” to prevent people from perceiving college athletes as “employees” rather than students (Williams & Masterson, 2014). Since this time, the issue has been never been publicized until recently. Former and current student-athletes are taking a stand to fight for what they believe is equal and fair compensation for their hard earned “work”. There is much debate in the literature regarding whether student-athletes should or should not have the right to unionize. The question is, will it actually benefit the student-athletes?

In its 104 years of existence, the NCAA has grown into a multi billion-dollar organization. Many believe this would not be possible without the efforts of young student-athletes competing in a game they love to play. These student-athletes, considered as amateurs due to the fact that they receive no monetary compensation for their efforts, are seeing the large amounts of revenue streaming into the athletic departments they represent and want a piece of that. However, the NCAA has used this as their biggest defense of maintaining players as amateurs. The NCAA states that, “Being an employee means getting paid, and college athletes are not paid. Therefore college athletes are not employees” (Williams & Masterson, 2014). This has been the biggest hurdle that Division I athletes have had to contest in order to establish a union.

Current NCAA president, Mark Emmert, called an effort to unionize players a ''grossly inappropriate'' way to solve problems in college sports while insisting the association has plans to change the school-athlete relationship (Pells, 2014). Those plans to change the student-athlete relationship is to create a stipend that student-athletes will receive on top of their scholarship, which will help cover the extra cost of attending college. However, this has been rejected numerous times by hundreds of Division I universities that would simply not have the resources to comply with this new legislation. The only problem is the schools rejecting this new allowance proposal, are not the schools that hold the power of the NCAA currently. Those schools that do are what we now know as the Power 5. The Power 5 schools are the Universities that belong to the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern and Pac 12 conferences.

These schools make the majority of the revenue for the NCAA considering they have the highest level of football and basketball teams in their conferences. The NCAA has spent the past three years writing up plans to change its governance structure to allow the Power 5 to have different rules from hundreds of smaller schools. Because smaller schools have fought against costly changes such as paying athletes stipends, the independence of the big schools could break a logjam (Pell, 2014). But, if the Power 5 is granted autonomy, no one knows if the nonrevenue sports can continue to survive with the “pay to play” theory. The additional costs, in turn, could alter the very nature of university sports programs as schools may no longer be able to financially support a large number of sports teams (Druckman & Gilli, 2014).

Many believe the NCAA has the capability to improve college-athlete welfare. The proposal that the Congress tie NCAA adoption of the reforms to continued institutional eligibility for federal financial assistance and tax preferences under the Higher Education Act of 1965. The NCAA would own the College Football Playoff and would be required to use playoff revenues to meet the following critical needs: Athlete injury insurance, cost of attendance, academic trust fund, and the right to arbitration (Porto, 2014). This proposition could seemingly work, considering the record-breaking viewership numbers the College Football Playoff established this year, only to add that with the already reputable billion-dollar “March Madness” tournament. The large sums of revenue could help offset the cost of additional programs, such as improved medical coverage and larger stipends (Druckman & Gilli, 2014).

Another interesting debate against unionizing student-athletes is the concern to employ student-athletes as a state employee. The fear is, the power seemingly moves into the hands of the once former “amateur” athlete. Because of “The Freedom of Information Act of 1966”, anyone has the right of access to information compiled by the executive branch agencies. If two players at two different institutions are comparable in skills, yet one is receiving significantly more money, this could cause a problem. This information is open to the public; hence, the players view those records, thus giving them the control to demand more money, similarly to a professional athlete. Furthermore, state income taxes could play a role into determining where high profile athletes attend college. In a state like Florida, there is zero income tax, compared to a state like Oregon, where 9.90% of income is taxable (Kisska-Schulze & Epstein, 2014).

The constant argument against unionization is and will always be that the student-athletes are not deemed employees. Conversely, one group of writers sees it differently. They believe players have bosses (i.e. coaches, athletic directors, academic advisors), who demand of their time and efforts for work, practices and community appearances. Scholarships are no longer guaranteed for four years. Coaches or administrators can dismiss players from their teams and they would lose their scholarship. This could be compared to a boss and firing an employee. Coaches have a great deal of control over their players and that gives student-athletes a legitimate argument that they are employees. Robert and Amy McCormick suggest that the college athlete satisfies the Common Law meaning of “employee” under the NLRA (National Labor Relations Assocation) (Williams & Masterson, 2014).

We hear from student-athletes across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid (Williams & Masterson, 2014). However, when the growing population of student-athletes now considers themselves athletes first, we must take a step back and analyze the culture of our athletic programs. If athletes commit 40-50 hours a week to their sport, when do we as educators and facilitators of growth and development step in and make a change. If student-athletes continue to push their bodies to the limit physically through their sport, and then do the same mentally through school, a breakdown of some sorts will eventually occur. That is where student-athletes are not supported.

Most athletic departments have the proper athletic training staff in place while the students are enrolled, but what happens when they graduate and the injuries related to their sports reoccur. More importantly, what do athletic departments have in place to help our student-athletes mentally? These real issues need to be discussed in NCAA meetings in the future. Until then, we will continue to hear about the Power 5 pushing to create more separation from the rest of the Division I schools in order to have a bigger piece of the money pie, not what they can do to develop their athletes into role models and exemplary citizens. When a former athlete was asked about his time in college he said, ‘‘The more removed from playing you are, the more you look back and shake your head at what you gave the school and what the school gave you’’ (Druckman & Gilli, 2014).


Druckman J., Gilli M., Klar S., Robison J. (2014) The Role of Social Context in Shaping Student-Athlete Opinions. PLoS ONE 9(12): e115159. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115159

Kisska-Schulze, K. and Epstein, A. (2014) Show Me the Money! – Analyzing the Potential State Tax Implications of Paying Student-Athletes. Virginia Sports and Entertainment Law Journal.

Pells, E. (2014). NCAA president Mark Emmert says unionization won't solve problems. NCAA News, 1.

Porto, B. (2014). The 'Big Five' Power Grab: the Real Threat to College Sports. Chronicle Of Higher Education, 60(40), A23.

Williams, T., & Masterson, G. (2014). A Union In College Football. Global Education Journal, 2014(2), 52-59.

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