The Diploma Mill at the Adjunct Sweatshop: Why College Athlete Unionization Matters

The first months of 2014 have seen a flurry of labor related actions on University campuses across the country. As administrators continue the push for corporate structures and profit driven business models, graduate employees, staff, and faculty have pushed back. The ongoing case of Northwestern University football team’s unionization provides an interesting and unique ripple in the neoliberalization of colleges and universities.

In January, members of NU’s football team filed a petition form a union. In March, Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago, ruled that the football players at NU are employees of the university. As directed by the decision, the NU players voted in April whether or not to unionize. Because the university appealed the decision, the result of the players’ vote will not be known until after the appeal is heard.

The effects this case cannot be underestimated. The most direct impact, of course, lies within the hallowed (and expensive) halls of Northwestern’s athletic facilities. Should the NLRB uphold the ruling, it would set the precedent for considering all football players at private universities to be employees. Athletes at public universities are subject to state laws on union organizing, and would thus have different paths to unionization.

Aside from the precedent setting logistical impacts, this case, along with other cases of mistreatment, demonstrates the need for union representation. See this clip from The Daily Show for a succinct and witty discussion of these issues. As the ending of the clip suggests, unionization is not just about wages & revenue sharing, but also about all the other important supports that unions provide such as grievance procedures outside of flawed university structures and the ability to engage with supervisors and university officials on a equal level. Thus, this ruling calls into question the authoritarian, often abusive, nature of coach/athlete relationships as well as the exploitative labor relations of universities more generally.

The NCAA has for decades strategized and developed policies which uphold the myth of amateurism while exploiting the athletes’ labor. In Bowled Over: Big Time College Football from the 1960s to the BCS Era, Michael Oriard argues that members of the NCAA contentiously debated scholarships throughout the 1960s and 70s. One-year scholarships were used to both recruit and dispose of players (often men of color) at the coaches’ whim.  Moreover, they developed the term “student-athletes” to maintain the myth of amateurism as football became more and more economically important. Athletics programs have ballooned into million dollar enterprises and the NCAA is now a billion dollar cartel.

The development of the NCAA as increasingly profit driven reflects similar shifts in the structure and governance of universities and colleges across the country. University administrators and state governing bodies have increasingly pushed for improvements in efficiency at universities, taking the standards of corporate business as the yardstick for academic success. These new standards of academic success include the number of students in a particular department, number of degrees conferred, time to degree, and grant monies procured.

In this quest for efficiency, administrators seek low cost labor, and as a result the state of secure, tenure-track employment is precarious at best. While there has been a 45% increase in full time students over the past ten years, tenure track positions have only increased by 28% over the past 30 years. Perhaps more tellingly, adjunct and non-tenure track faculty now make up over 75% of all faculty employees. Further, most adjuncts will earn less than $20,000 per year.

As universities increasingly strive for profit driven business models, workers across campus are facing the brunt of budget & program cuts and are being asked to do more with less.  And yet, workers are fighting back.  The move to collective action amongst athletes reflects a rising tide of collective action amongst academic workers. Graduate student employees and adjunct faculty have organized unions and campus wide protests against external “efficiency audits” have called attention to the corporatization of universities.

Athlete unionization matters because every worker on campus is under attack. Collective action and solidarity are necessary for all of us to achieve a living wage and fair working conditions.

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