What Are They Playing For?

Monday, April 7, 2014

After finishing my series on the Japanese American incarceration, I was at a loss for a subject for this week’s blog. Then a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board decided that Northwestern University football players with athletic scholarship are employees. Actually, that decision was made on March 26, but it’s timely enough for me.

For those of you who haven’t been following the controversy, it all started when a union wanted to represent football players at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, which is a private university located just north of Chicago. The union argued that the football players are Northwestern employees because the scholarships should be seen as wages paid for services (playing football). It’s actually more complicated than that, and it doesn’t affect a lot of college football players—including scholarship players at public universities. But this isn’t a legal blog, and that should be enough information to understand the point I’m going to make.

First, two quick disclaimers. I’m not at expert in labor or employment law, and I haven’t read the decision at issue here, so I’m not going to comment on its legal correctness. Also, the regional director’s decision will probably be followed by a lengthy appeals process, and the result may well change.

Regardless of whether the decision is legally correct, I think the result is stupid. But I place a significant amount of the blame on the National Football League’s training system, which never made sense to me. Well, maybe it does economically, but it isn’t rational.

The NFL uses colleges and universities as its training ground. I’m not familiar with its eligibility rules, and it may be possible to go straight from high school to the NFL. But college football programs have many players who—at least by appearance—don’t care about getting an education. They are there simply because the chances of being drafted by an NFL team are much higher for a player who enters college and plays three or four years at that level.

For a player who wants an education, a football scholarship is a means to obtain a degree that might otherwise be beyond his financial grasp. The degree is the motivation, even if he hopes for a professional career afterwards. And if he works hard, he is likely to achieve his primary goal.

But not everyone is college material, and even some who have the potential don’t have the motivation. For those players, college is solely a means to a professional career. And that’s an outcome that is by no means assured.

I prefer the baseball system with its minor league teams. Players who want an education can go to college and enter the draft after obtaining a degree. But players who aren’t college material or aren’t motivated to get an education can go straight into the baseball workforce and earn actual wages right away. Even if they don’t make it to the major leagues, at least they were paid for their years in training.

Do I think that treating college football players as employees is the right result? No.

But I can understand it.


The picture shows a 1906 football game between the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers. The photo is in the public domain because of its age.

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