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Ben Krimmel: In college sports, time to look for the union label

Media Credit: Cartoon by Jesse Gurney

Thanks to the men’s basketball team racking up wins and catching national attention, GW is falling in love with college sports again. I’ve gotten front-row seats covering games, chronicling the team’s ascent.

But college sports has always been about more than what happens on the court. Issues of money, fairness and player safety are dark clouds in the background.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Ben Krimmel

While I love watching and covering college sports, I have a bad taste in my mouth as universities and the NCAA deny athletes compensation and basic protections for the work they perform for their schools.

These athletes don’t have anybody representing their interests when the rules governing their lives, scholarships and academics are made.

To get athletes a seat at the table, a group of Northwestern University football players filed a petition Tuesday to form a players union with the National Labor Relations Board’s backing. Northwestern’s former quarterback Kain Colter compared the NCAA to a “dictatorship.” Players shouldn’t only have athletic talent and academic ambitions – they also need workers’ rights, they argued.

They’re right.

Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, explained that the union would help lobby for better medical protections and for scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance. “Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections,” Huma said.

More protections are necessary as the financial and health interests of the players, universities and NCAA sometimes conflict. Athletic directors and coaches look out for their players of course, but they typically are first responsible to the university – their employer.

The NCAA created the term “student-athlete” in 1953 in order to avoid paying more of athletes’ medical bills. In the absence of an organized body, today’s athletes are voiceless and powerless to advocate for their goals of better health and financial protection.

These athletes don’t fit the normal college kid image perpetuated by the NCAA. Unlike average students, they make big money for their schools in the form of athletic merchandise, TV contracts, tickets, concessions and alumni giving.

Some of the compromises Huma and players are seeking should not be difficult for the NCAA to accommodate: independent team doctors to diagnose concussions, full coverage of sports related medical costs and raising graduation rates.

The NCAA released a laughable response: “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education.” The NCAA will surely fight this idea tooth and nail, mainly because it means sunk dollars to a very profitable business. The fight could even head to the Supreme Court.

Until then, GW administrators can get behind this effort in small ways. No one expects the University to fight against the big, bad NCAA, but GW should consider supporting the students of Northwestern.

Even if a public statement of support is unlikely, GW can commit to smaller actions like full health coverage for injured players and improved academic resources to athletes.

Under athletic director Patrick Nero, the department has already made great strides to raise grade-point averages, training and nutrition help for athletes. But it can go a step further.

The Department of Athletics and Recreation already formed an advisory board of alumni and ex-athletes two years ago. The department should now create an advisory board of current athletes to give more GW student-athletes a seat at the table and push for more financial resources.

While many may not associate GW with being a big sports school, consider this: Former men’s basketball head coach Karl Hobbs was paid $586,989 in 2009. Education may be the first priority for the NCAA, but it is clear that coaches are making quite a bit more than professors.

At GW and Northwestern, the overwhelming majority of athletes will not go on to lucrative professional sports careers. and will not see a dime of the millions they earned for their universities.

Players unions help protect the rights of athletes, which are especially important when those athletes aren’t paid. It is time college athletes got their own union.

The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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