College students who get scholarships to be on a school’s swim team rightly can be called “student athletes.” Ditto for those on golf, tennis, ski, track, rowing, gymnastics, cross-country and similar teams that don’t draw large crowds of paying fans. Ditto for nearly all women’s sports. Money isn’t a significant factor.
But million-dollar college football and basketball male teams are different. They’re huge commercial operations with gigantic stadiums, millionaire coaches, lucrative TV rights and enormous ticket sales. Players are recruited for their sports prowess, and most aren’t students in the normal sense.
Until now, universities have conducted this thriving business with free labor: players who get nothing except tuition and living costs (despite recurring scandals involving under-the-table payments).
But the system seems poised to change. A federal judge just ruled that players who train incessantly and risk permanent injury are entitled to a share of the bonanza they bring to their schools.
After years of debate, the issue reached a peak four months ago when a National Labor Relations Board director in Chicago ruled that Northwestern University’s players are actually school employees, so they’re entitled to form a labor union and demand pay.
University presidents and politicians exploded. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, former president of the University of Tennessee, called the NLRB ruling “an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate sports as we know it.”
The battle became a federal court case. Last week, in a complex 99-page ruling, U.S. Judge Claudia Wilken gave a partial victory to players. She allowed them to be paid — but only $5,000 per year, placed in trust funds to be collected when they leave school. Ever-higher university bidding for superstars will be forbidden.
All sides vow to appeal this ruling. We don’t know whether it will be reversed, or whether it’s a stride toward making players the hired employees of universities.
At the moment, it seems that male football and basketball stars may move into a different class from unpaid student athletes.