As NCAA Division I Board Chair, Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch is at the forefront of navigating the increasingly more complex playing field for today’s student-athlete. Today he co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining why he believes unionization is a bad idea. The full text follows for your convenience.
Why Unionizing College Sports Is a Bad Call
Change at the NCAA can be achieved without turning
student-athletes into employees
By Lou Anna Simon and Nathan Hatch
The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I men’s and women’s basketball championship games on Monday and Tuesday mark the culmination of a month that saw more than 10,000 student-athletes participate in 23 different championships at all levels of the NCAA.
We are proud to be a part of an organization that inspires the fervor and intensity of March Madness. For us, though, the championship games are about more than spectacle and excitement. Big events like these help the NCAA to provide opportunities for more than 460,000 student-athletes to get an education, to grow under the guidance of the world’s finest coaches and professors, and to become leaders on the field and off.
Those opportunities are being jeopardized by a push from people who believe that unionization for a few is the best and only way to address the current dynamic of college athletics. For now, the unionization push is focused on Northwestern University football student-athletes, but we must see if the National Labor Relations board upholds its recent ruling in favor of Northwestern players who seek to unionize.
We oppose the effort to bring labor unions into college sports. One group of athletes is not more hardworking, more dedicated or more driven than another. Unionization will create unequal treatment not only among student-athletes competing in different sports, but, quite possibly, even among student-athletes on the same team.
Our concerns about this movement extend beyond the economic and practical difficulties created by transforming the college-sports relationship into one of employer-employee. To call student-athletes employees is an affront to those players who are taking full advantage of the opportunity to get an education.
Do we really want to signal to society and high-school students that making money is the reason to come play a sport in college, as opposed to getting an education that will provide lifetime benefits? The NCAA’s philosophy, proven by where the organization spends its money, is education first. More than 90% of NCAA revenue is redistributed to member schools, which provide $2.7 billion in athletics scholarships in addition to other direct support to student-athletes. Most member schools depend on this revenue, as only 23 out of 1,100 generated more money than they spent on athletics in the past fiscal year.
The model we have today enables more than 150,000 young men and women playing more than 20 different Division I sports to attend college and earn a degree while competing – and after their eligibility is complete. Many of these student-athletes would not be able to attend college were it not for the athletics scholarships they received: 15% of Division I student-athletes are the first in their families to attend college. This model provides similar educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Division II and III student-athletes every year.
Are those seeking representation by a union raising legitimate concerns? Certainly. We already have begun addressing those concerns by:
- Allowing schools to provide scholarships to student-athletes to return and complete their degrees even many years after their eligibility has expired.
- Designing a new governance model that includes student-athletes – with votes – at the highest levels.
- Allowing schools latitude to provide student-athletes with resources that enhance their educational experience.
Division I is completely reworking its governance structure, with the student-athlete voice central to its design. After our structure is reconfigured in the coming months, we will pursue a number of other student-athlete benefits within a year. The Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pacific-12 Conference and Southeastern Conference are committed to using the autonomy they hope to gain to better meet the needs of student-athletes at their 65 schools. Among the top issues to be addressed:
- Redefining a scholarship to include extra money for things such as trips home and professional clothing.
- Providing set times for student-athletes to get a break from the rigor of Division I sports.
- Keeping the health and safety of student-athletes a priority.
Research shows that less than 2% of men’s basketball and football student-athletes go on to compete professionally in their sport. Most student-athletes play college sports as part of their educational experience and simply because they love their sport. We believe that the current model for college athletics, while in need of changes, is worth preserving. We look forward to making student-athletes more complete partners with the NCAA as we shape the future of college sports.
Ms. Simon is the president of Michigan State University and chairwoman of the NCAA executive committee. Mr. Hatch is the president of Wake Forest University and chairman of the NCAA Division I board of directors.