Unionize College Sports

California’s new bill for college sports is a good first step, but unionization should be the goal.

Jun Sung, Deputy Opinion Editor

California Governor Gavin Newsom will soon sign into law the “Fair Pay to Play Act,” which would let a college athlete profit off of their name, image and likeness. The law would significantly change the dynamics of college sports in the state, allowing athletes to participate in endorsement deals and hire agents. The National Collegiate Athletics Association is in clear opposition to the bill, arguing that it is unconstitutional and would make California schools ineligible to compete. In reality, the bill would expose the NCAA’s mistreatment of student athletes and lead the way for a fairer system in more states. However, it doesn’t do nearly enough. College athletes need unionization and wages. Only then can students be protected from the abuse and injuries of the college sports world.

The law is a good start for future change in college sports. Endorsement deals would certainly improve the environment, as prominent players would be paid by businesses, giving them an incentive to stay in school longer. This would solve the NCAA’s issue of one-and-done players in basketball, and be the key to more entertaining seasons and less turnover. 

The bill also fails to protect athletes from abuse. Last year, University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair died from heatstroke after coaches pushed the player too far during practice and improperly treated his condition. This year, an independent investigation found that officials at the Ohio State University knew about a team doctor’s sexual abuse. These two transgressions show the lack of consideration college athletes are shown by both university officials and the NCAA. Union backing would make players aware of the unfair power dynamic that exists between athletes and officials, protecting them against mistreatment.

The bill also doesn’t help unknown players who don’t get endorsements. Athletes like swimmers and fencers may not get as much recognition as football and basketball players, but they deserve compensation for their work as well. With the California bill, only athletes in popular sports would get payment because only they would be chosen for endorsements. There must be a system that views each sport in the NCAA as equally important and views each athlete as deserving of a wage. This fairness can only be realized with unionization. For NBA players, unionization has meant gaining the ability to bargain with teams and the league for larger shares in revenue. The NBA’s union, the NBA Players Association, is a perfect example of how unionizing is effective for creating greater negotiating power. A similar union should be created in college sports so abuses against athletes like Jordan McNair are treated fairly.

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The NCAA, though, has argued that students cannot be employees, because it would undermine the educational purpose of college and the voluntary aspect of participation in sports. However, an NCAA study mentioned that on average, Division I athletes train for 37.3 hours per week — almost as much as a full-time employee works. For the 2016-2017 school year, the organization made $1 billion in revenue. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the NCAA and its athletes, as the organization’s structure makes sure that its profits are maximized while players work constantly for no pay.

Some college sports are already tilting towards a more equal playing field. In South Carolina, legislators are planning to file a bill similar to the “Fair Pay to Play Act.” In 2015, Northwestern University football players came close in their bid to create a union. The NCAA should recognize the growing popularity of unionization, and make way for a new era in college sports. Considering the fact that the organization makes exorbitant amounts of money, compensation for the workers that make the business possible only makes sense. 

California’s bill to allow endorsement deals in college sports is a good first step toward the larger goal of unionizing the athletic workplace. Currently, abuses by officials continue, and athletes face an uneven power dynamic with their university and the NCAA. Only with unionization can these problems be resolved or even addressed. It is time to support a union movement that breaks open the NCAA’s facade of amateurism and creates an even playing field in college sports.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Jun Sung at [email protected]

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