As of this month, college football players are university workers — at least if you ask the federal government. Last week, the General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board issued a memorandum stating that college athletes should be considered employees and afforded the same protections as any other worker. According to the memo, the very term “student-athletes” is a mischaracterization of the nature of their employment.
This federal memo gets a lot right. The dynamics between college athletes and the schools they play for, which often profit immensely off them, are rife with examples of exploitation. This relationship just doesn't exist at Harvard, where aid is completely untethered to athletics and the term “student-athletes” fits.
The memo represents a seismic shift in how the federal government views student-athletes. After a years-long battle, a landmark 2021 Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for increased athlete protections when it ruled that the NCAA can’t preclude athletes from accessing college staples, like study-abroad programs and paid internships. The ruling provoked the question — what else might we be depriving college athletes of? — and provided the legal standing to challenge long-standing power dynamics.
As a board, we have generally been supportive of expanding the rights of college athletes. When the NCAA allowed athletes to, in essence, sign brand deals, we saw the move as a belated recognition of athletes’ “basic economic right” to profit off their image; something they certainly shouldn’t miss out on because they play sports.
This federal memo wrestles with a far more significant question: Are college athletes employees?
Depends where you look. On campuses where college sports are major cash cows (think the University of Alabama) and those where an athlete must play to keep their financial aid, the answer is clearly yes. At most colleges, a set number of full scholarships are earmarked for athletes playing Division 1 “headcount sports” — those that generally rake in revenue, like football, basketball, and volleyball. The promise of social mobility is a major factor that pushes students to pursue athletics and undergo recruitment with schools that offer athletes full rides. Harvard, where aid has nothing to do with a student’s athleticism, is a notable exception.
On such campuses, athlete recruitment is akin to a formal hiring process. College athletes perform a fundamentally economic service for their institution as the foot soldiers in the $1 billion industry that is college sports. College coaches and NCAA statues exert incredible control over an athlete's quality of life. We struggle to see much of a difference between the strict practice schedules college athletes must comply with and the hours say, a waitress, is subject to, besides the fact that athletes have no say in what “shifts” they work and labor protections more strictly regulate the service industry. And, rather than the prospect of getting fired looming over their heads, college athletes with full academic scholarships contingent on their athletic output risk ending their education should they get injured or simply decide to quit.
In classifying collegiate athletes as employees, the NLRB memo opens the door to unionization and other forms of labor action. In 2016, Northwestern’s football team, led by its star quarterback, attempted to unionize, arguing that when athletes put in 40 hours a week and only graduate half the time, painting them as just students is disingenuous. Though the NLRB shot them down then, this new memo makes that outcome unlikely going forward. Now, unionization presents a promising path to improving the labor conditions college athletes play, train, and learn in.
However, unionization doesn’t quite fit at Harvard. To call the athletic landscape here unique would be an understatement. For one, we have 42 varsity teams (some more niche and high-brow, like water polo and fencing), making us the school with the most Division I programs in the country. The Harvard athletic department also breaks exactly even, meaning our teams aren’t exactly an exploited source of wealth for the school.
Most significantly, our generous financial aid program is not at all tied to athletics, meaning students here don’t have to choose between staying in a sport they don’t enjoy and keeping their scholarships and quitting (perhaps to invest more heavily in other aspects of college life) at the cost of being priced out of their education. That might explain why over one in every four students who played on our varsity teams during college quit by their senior year; an option many athletes at other universities can’t even fathom.
At Harvard, the college goes out of its way to clarify that its athletes are students first, and athletes if they want to be. Former Athletics Director Robert L. Scalise compared an athlete quitting their sport to a student changing their concentration. In its mission statement, the Athletics Department clarifies that athletes “are held to the same standards as every other Harvard student.” This is a far cry from other universities, where some athletes, shockingly, graduate illiterate — passed through class after class for winning games, tragically deprived of an education.
On our campus, where the term student-athlete truly fits, athlete organizing makes more sense in the form of student groups, such as the Women of Harvard Athletics and the Harvard Athletics Black Varsity Association, that work to build community and enhance the student-athlete experience at Harvard.
The fact that unionization doesn’t make sense at Harvard does not blunt this NLRB memo's positive impact. For too long, college athletics has taken advantage of its players — proudly selling star players’ jerseys while they themselves go hungry; stripping them of scholarships if they become too injured to play. We’re hopeful that the federal government’s recognition of the labor inherent in collegiate athletics paves the way for a long-overdue improvement in how colleges treat athletes.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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