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Aaron Leibowitz | The Fan

It’s come to this

Published: Thursday, January 30, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 30, 2014 08:01

If the world made sense — if the NCAA were a sensible organization that gave a damn about the well-being of the young men and women it purports to represent — then the NCAA’s statement on Tuesday in response to the first-ever attempt by college athletes to unionize would seem reasonable, irrefutable, even. 

“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education,” the statement reads. “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.”

But, of course! The purpose of college is to get an education! Students who happen to play sports are not employees! What could be more obvious? 

Then reality strikes. The sad truth is that the NCAA has strayed so far from its stated goals, its actions have become so hypocritical and self-serving, that the statement it released on Tuesday can hardly be read with a straight face. 

For one, we now know that the term “student-athlete” was in fact conjured up by the NCAA for the specific purpose of classifying players as amateurs to avoid paying them workers’ compensation. 

We also know that, though just 1.7 percent of college football players and 1.2 percent of men’s college basketball players reach the professional level, Div. I athletes in these sports typically receive anything but a first-rate education.

And we know that, while many Div. I athletes receive scholarships, those scholarships are often worth less than the full cost of attending school and can be terminated if a player gets injured or sick. 

That’s not to mention that NCAA athletes — particularly those in Div. I football and men’s basketball, but also in certain other sports at select schools — generate millions of dollars for their coaches, for the NCAA, for their conferences and for TV networks. They generate revenue like workers do; they devote many hours each week to their craft like workers do; and they are subject to exploitation like workers are. Yet they do not receive the benefits that workers ought to receive, including sufficient medical protections and “full” scholarships that are actually full. 

For all of these reasons, the football players at Northwestern should be commended for taking formal steps Tuesday to request representation by a labor union. It’s a move unprecedented in the history of college sports. It’s long overdue.

The players face a tall task in taking on the NCAA behemoth, and perhaps their attempt at unionization will fail. But for fans who care not just about being entertained, but also about the just treatment of the athletes entertaining them, this is a step in the right direction. For the athletes themselves, it offers a powerful message to the NCAA: Stop taking advantage of us.   

Perhaps if the NCAA had not become the embodiment of power run amok, employee status for college athletes would not be necessary. In a perfect world, education really would be the top priority, and unionization really would undermine the primary purpose of college, as the NCAA has insisted it does. 

But that ship sailed long ago, and the NCAA is at the helm. 

College athletes put their bodies — and, given the realities of head trauma, their minds — on the line. At the same time, those athletes in revenue-generating sports help put millions of dollars in others’ pockets. That alone is enough to warrant their employee status. 

Unfortunately, the NCAA has worked hard to ensure that “student-athletes” remain just that. The myth of amateurism runs deep, and multiple court cases over the past few decades have served to strengthen that myth. 

But the public is awakening to the realities of big-time college sports. We know changes are needed. Now, it’s refreshing to see the athletes follow suit. 

Aaron Leibowitz is a senior who is majoring in American studies. He can be reached at

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