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Maxwell: Why College Athletes are Not Employees

August 1, 2014, 2:23 pm


by Bill Maxwell, Opinion Columnist Tampa Bay Times

In just three weeks, college football will cast its powerful spell on millions of Americans.
Packed in stadiums and glued to TV screens, we will become obsessed with the
performance of elite Division I teams and star athletes.
Most fans only see what the players do on the gridiron. Off the field, players live under
extreme pressure, most devoting up to 50 hours a week preparing for game day,
virtually giving up all other parts of their lives. If they are severely injured, their long-term
career goals may be altered.
Having heard and read many anecdotes about overworked, impoverished scholarship
athletes, I used to believe that such players were paraprofessionals and should be
paid for their services "pay-for-play."
The term student-athlete, I believed, was a misnomer; it should have been athletestudent. As such, they deserved more than tuition, books, room and board. They
deserved handsome salaries. Amateurism the NCAA's core principle was a
sham, an effective way to rake in billions of dollars from football (and basketball) each
year without sharing the wealth with players.
I began rethinking my position after a group of Northwestern University scholarship
football players initiated an effort to unionize, declaring that they are employees. After
studying the players' argument and after talking with coaches, athletes, regular
students, college presidents and sports writers about the issues, I've changed my mind
about pay-for-play.
Totally monetizing college athletics is a bad idea. Although I'm not a die-hard NCAA
supporter, I'm back to believing that the organization's principle of amateurism is good
for college sports.
Changing my mind wasn't easy. The players' move to unionize quickly gained news
coverage and big-name supporters, and it became a potential institutional gamechanger after the newly formed College Athletes Players Association submitted a
petition to the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the players. It became
more creditable when a Chicago region-director of the NLRB ruled that the players were
employees under federal law, giving them the right to form a union and bargain
collectively.
On July 3, Northwestern, the NCAA and other major stakeholders filed briefs with the
NLRB in Washington to overturn the regional ruling. Most notably, in a friend-of-thecourt brief, the American Council on Education, comprised of 1,800 college presidents,
was unequivocal in its opposition: "Student-athletes participate for their own benefit;

**Words in bold are defined in the glossary on


the last page of this article.

they do not render services for compensation. They are not employees and therefore
not subject to the National Labor Relations Act."
Those supporting pay-for-play argue that the amount of control the university has over
players and the scholarships players receive as compensation for their services meet
the definition of "employees." They also argue, and correctly so, that top players are
models of personal sacrifice and dedication.
Northwestern players and their advocates have legitimate grievances, but they ignore
the realities at the heart of amateurism in college sports. Two realities: four years of
college costs can be more than $200,000 at some institutions, and while most students
leave college with debt that takes years to pay off, scholarship athletes don't depart with
this burden.
Beyond its monetary value, think of the lifelong benefits of four years of free college
education: the learning, the career preparation, the personal maturation and the
networking.
As a former college football player, professor and graduate student at a university with
bowl championship football and basketball teams, I have known many athletes from
low-income families whose lives have been positively transformed by the campus
experience. Some have told me that college saved their lives.
While I oppose salaries for student-athletes, I support generous monthly stipends,
guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses and policies that lessen the
risk of serious brain injuries.
It was good news on July 22 when the NCAA tentatively settled a $70 million classaction lawsuit involving athletes' head injuries. The settlement included concussion
testing and other research. Unfortunately, it didn't include money to compensate players
who face long-term problems as a result of head trauma while in uniform, a core ethical
problem that must be addressed.
Supporters of pay-for-play argue that this failure to compensate injured scholarship
athletes is more reason for salaries.
I disagree. If scholarships are fully monetized as part of a professional pay-for-play
scheme, the principle of the amateur will disappear. The result will be that college
athletics will cease to be an entertaining, organic and wholesome part of campus life
a parallel universe in every way.

Maxwell, Bill. Maxwell: Why College Athletes are Not Employees. Tampa Bay Times.
Tampa Bay Times, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 Jul. 2016.

**Words in bold are defined in the glossary on


the last page of this article.