The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
On April 25, Northwestern football players will vote on whether to form a union. But we may never know the results of the vote, because Northwestern University is fighting to have any union banned after the NLRB Regional Director ruled it could exist. In a legal brief appealing the ruling (pdf), Northwestern made a number of strange and disturbing claims, beginning with the argument that “The University is not in the business of football.” If it’s not a business, then why are you paying your head football coach total compensation of more than $2.175 million per year in a 10-year contract, which is far more than the president or any professor at the school makes? Is it because football is the most important educational activity at Northwestern? Or is it because football is a big business?
The football players union attacked Northwestern’s arguments in a response brief (pdf) that focused on the key legal arguments.
But Northwestern’s bizarre assertions deserve greater scrutiny because so many of them seem contrary to reality and any notion of common sense. Northwestern’s legal brief argues, “Contrary to the Regional Director’s findings, Northwestern scholarship football student-athletes are not ‘initially sought out, recruited and ultimately granted scholarships because of their athletic prowess on the football field.’” Really? Is Northwestern seriously claiming that Northwestern’s football players are recruited for their academic abilities and then the university accidentally discovers that they can play football? It would be very interesting for Northwestern to provide the average high school GPA and SAT scores for its scholarship football recruits and explain why they are below the university’s average if they’re not recruited and given preferential admission based on athletics.
Northwestern claims that “the record is clear that recruitment of student-athletes—just like recruitment of all Northwestern undergraduates—focuses on academics.” According to Northwestern, the proof of this is that an administrator in Northwestern’s athletic program looks at potential athletic recruits to determine if they can succeed academically at Northwestern. But showing concern that athletes can maintain minimal academic progress is not the same as being focused on academics. Football players are recruited at Northwestern (and everywhere else) because of their ability to play football, and absolutely for no other reason. Anybody who thinks that football players at Northwestern are recruited because they are good students, or wonderful human beings, is simply delusional. Many of them are exceptional students and nice people, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the reasons why they are recruited and offered a scholarship.
According to the administration, “The Regional Director also incorrectly found that ‘but for their football prowess the players would not have been offered a scholarship.’” So Northwestern claims that all these football players would have received merit scholarships to attend Northwestern, even if they didn’t receive a football scholarship?
Northwestern’s brief makes some deeply unbelievable assertions: “The record shows that full-time students spend at least 20 hours a week attending class.” On what planet does that happen? At Northwestern, full-time students typically take 4 classes per quarter, which typically meet for 150-160 minutes per week. That’s 10-11 hours per week in class, if they show up to every class. A very unusual student with an overload and a lot of lab classes might spend 15 hours per week attending class. But it would be exceptionally rare to find any student at Northwestern who spends 20 hours a week attending class, even though Northwestern portrays this as the minimum for every single student. And considering that Northwestern’s football practice runs from 6:50am to 10:30am each day during the season, it would be difficult to find any Northwestern football players who spent more hours in all of their classes combined than they did attending required football practice and games.
According to the brief, “Northwestern views participation in intercollegiate athletics as part of the educational process. High level competitive athletics teaches valuable and transferable life skills that Northwestern hopes to transmit to all of its students.” What is this, trickle-down education? Are all of the students cheering on a Saturday learning the transferable life skills taught to the players, like proper tackling and blocking schemes? Of course, the biggest lesson players learn is total obedience to their coaches (which is the opposite of what a good university should teach students), something that made the union drive so unusual.
Northwestern claims that “the football activities are inextricably intertwined with the educational experience.” That might be reasonable if Northwestern offered classes on football or a football major, but it obviously doesn’t because football has nothing to do with education.
Northwestern worries that with a union, “there would be no level playing field. Some student-athletes would be able to unionize, negotiate over economic and non-economic conditions and even strike, while others competing in the same sport and within the same organized structure of competition would not. In practicality, the result would be chaotic.” Of course, the only thing preventing other student-athletes from being able to unionize would be Northwestern itself; if the university chose to recognize any union, then it could avoid this dreaded chaos. But imagine if this kind of argument was employed by other private corporations. Any union could be struck down if it didn’t include every person on the workforce due to the lack of a “level playing field.” There never was a level playing field among athletes or students, and it almost seems like bad satire to have such a notion invoked by an elite university that’s devoted to helping its overprivileged students gain even more advantages in life.
Northwestern claims that the NLRB ruling would have “the unintended consequence of student-athletes being taxed tens of thousands of dollars on their athletic scholarships over time.” Northwestern goes on to show that its lawyers need to take some basic economics courses, because they argue that students would rather take out a loan for $61,000 each year rather than receive a full scholarship and pay taxes on $61,000 (about $10,000 a year, which a student could easily get a loan to pay). Of course, this whole argument is nonsense, because the IRS rulings on taxable income are entirely separate from NLRB rulings, and there is absolutely no indication that football players will be taxed on scholarships for forming a union.
The administration claimed, “Northwestern would face unfair labor practice charges for refusing to negotiate over many mandatory subjects of bargaining that are strictly regulated by the NCAA and Big Ten Conference.” This is obviously untrue: Northwestern is not obligated to bargain over things that would violate regulations it must follow. Northwestern’s logic would be like a company claiming that workers must be banned from unionizing because the workers could in theory demand something that regulations prohibit the company from doing.
The administration argued, “If Northwestern were to provide through collective bargaining to a male student-athlete or team an enhancement to any item from the ‘laundry list,’ Title IX would require Northwestern to offer the same proportional benefits for female student-athletes and teams.” That’s absolutely no reason to deny anyone the right to unionize. In fact, it’s a good argument for why a football player union would help all student athletes (as unions often help non-unionized workers). Unfortunately, the notion of gender equality in college athletics spending is an absolute joke, so it’s unlikely to happen.
Northwestern also argued that the football players who are given a four-year scholarship (five if they are redshirted) are merely “temporary” employees. Considering that the average worker in America stays at a job for 4.4 years (and 91% of Millennials expect to stay at a job for less than three years), this kind of logic could justify banning all unions on the grounds that all workers are merely “temporary.”
It is possible that Northwestern’s campaign of intimidation will succeed in persuading football players to vote against a union, as so many other union-busting campaigns have done. And it is possible that the NLRB will overturn the district ruling and deny these athletes the right to unionize.
But that should not end the debate. Northwestern recognizes many rights that it is not obligated to embrace. Northwestern declares that it protects academic freedom for its faculty and freedom of speech for its students, even though it has no legal compulsion to do so. The same should be true of the fundamental rights of association involved in forming a union.
The idea that a union is antithetical to the values of a university or to being a student is absurd. Consider the example of student government. It’s a kind of union, in which students elect their representatives to speak with the administration on their behalf. Students are forced to pay dues (student fees) to support student government, even if they oppose the elected officials or the concept of student government. And the administration openly supports the concept of student government and works with its elected leaders, even when it disapproves of the particular people elected by the students. The administration does this even though it is under no legal compulsion to recognize student government. A university is made stronger and better when its students have democracy and representation.
If an elected union is appropriate to represent all of the students, then an elected union is appropriate for the special needs of student athletes, who are particularly vulnerable to being under the control of their coaches. Northwestern has a moral obligation to recognize any and every union on campus, just as it has a moral obligation to recognize the free speech rights of everyone on campus.