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NCAA needs to address college athletes’ concerns

The recent decision by the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board that recognizes certain football players from Northwestern University as “employees” has sparked a nationwide debate and generated plenty of speculation about the future of Division I sports.

The idea that college athletes are employees is not new. In 1953, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a state agency determination that an injured football player from the University of Denver was an “employee” and was eligible for workers’ compensation.

Getting a scholarship to play college sports is the opportunity of a lifetime. However, the idea that these players are students first and athletes second is fiction. The NLRB recognized that during the football season, players are committing 40 to 50 hours a week for football activities, compared with 20 hours for schoolwork.

In addition to playing football, players are subjected to policies that inform many aspects of their private lives. For example, many athletic departments control where players may live, if they are allowed to work, drive a car or travel off campus. Of course, players accept the loss of these rights in exchange for scholarships and the opportunity to play football, but those scholarships are also subject to restrictions and can be rescinded for a variety reasons.

Currently, players have no bargaining power to change these conditions. The players are asking for better oversight of player head injuries, fully guaranteed scholarships and comprehensive medical coverage for player injuries – not outrageous requests, especially considering that athletic departments in the five biggest conferences collectively generate revenues upward of $5 billion annually.

Whether players should unionize is unclear. What is clear is that if the NCAA wants to avoid bargaining collectively with player unions, some new system must emerge that takes player concerns seriously and addresses grievances when abuses occur.

Don Herbert Jr.

Buffalo