A decision yesterday by the National Labor Relations Board found that football players at Northwestern University were, in effect, employees of their school. That means that Northwestern players can move forward with plans to form a union — a move that sent shock waves through the world of college athletics, even though it's too early to know just what it will mean.
But it has already profoundly complicated one of the oldest, thorniest questions in college sports: Should student-athletes be paid?
Here's what the NLRB argued in its finding:
"The players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three or four month football season. Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies. In fact, the players do not attend academic classes while in training camp or the first few weeks of the regular season. After the academic year begins, the players still continue to devote 40 to 50 hours per week on football-related activities while only spending about 20 hours per week attending classes. Obviously, the players are also required to spend time studying and completing their homework as they have to spend time practicing their football skills even without the direct orders of their coaches. But it cannot be said that they are 'primarily students' who 'spend only a limited number of hours performing their athletic duties.' "
But according to a poll by ABC News and The Washington Post that came out earlier this week, most Americans are firmly in the "no" camp on the question of paying college athletes — 66 percent of people oppose it. That is, until you disaggregate the data: A majority of people of color favor compensating athletes (51 percent to 46 percent) while white people overwhelmingly disapprove of paying college athletes (73 percent to 24 percent). A small majority of Latinos supported paying college athletes, as well.
An even higher proportion of people of color felt that college athletes should be allowed to form unions: Sixty-six percent of people of color backed the idea while 56 percent of whites opposed it.
It's worth considering the racial breakdown of players on the field and court here, too. Division I men's basketball and football are the NCAA's highest-profile sports and thus often at the center of discussions of athlete compensation. According to NCAA figures from the 2012-2013 season, more than 66 percent of college basketball players were people of color, while nearly 60 percent of college football players were.
A study by Drexel University found that players in the top tier of college football who received a "full" scholarship had an average annual scholarship shortfall — that is, expenses they had to pay out of pocket — of $3,285 during the 2010-2011 academic year.
College football and basketball coaches are the highest-compensated public employees in more than 30 states, while March Madness regularly brings in more than $1 billion in ad revenue for the networks with rights to broadcast it — more than any of the professional sports leagues generate for their postseason ads.