The decision to grant football players at Northwestern University the right to form a union, made yesterday by a National Labor Relations Board regional director, is being decried as a sign of the apocalypse by critics and hailed as the beginning of glorious revolution by proponents. Both sides should take a deep breath.
For one thing, in football terms, the ruling is just the first drive of the first quarter. The case will now go before the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, and perhaps from there to federal court.
More important, this baby step toward athlete unionization need go no further if the National Collegiate Athletic Association recognizes it as a wake-up call and ends the coercive relationship that now exists between athletes and the schools they play for.
Keep in mind, the decisive issue in the regional director's decision was not the long practice hours or control that coaches exert over players' lives. These and other issues are familiar even to nonscholarship students who play college sports, including those who play in the Ivy League, which doesn't offer athletic scholarships. Joining a team necessarily involves huge personal sacrifices.
Rather, the ruling was based on the fact that an athletic scholarship can be withdrawn if a player opts to quit a team. This gives the school too much leverage -- whether or not courts ever decide that it makes the student an employee.
The NCAA should solve this by making a simple change that would be good for students and schools alike: Require that all athletic scholarships be granted for four years. Then, if a student-athlete lost interest in a sport, or decided the team requirements were too demanding, he or she could quit and still finish college on scholarship. Incredibly, the NCAA began allowing such multiyear awards just two years ago, and while some schools have begun offering them, few do -- and only to a small number of high-level prospects.
Guaranteeing four-year scholarships would force coaches to recruit more carefully and prevent them from discarding student-athletes who fail to meet their expectations, a shameful but all-too-common practice. And it would give student-athletes greater power in relation to their coaches and athletic departments, without taking the tortured step of calling them employees.
Colleges and universities should not aim to win the legal war with their student-athletes while ignoring the moral shortcomings in their relationship with them. Guaranteed four-year scholarships would allow the NCAA to moot this case and return "student" to a place of primacy in the term "student-athlete."
--Editors: Francis Barry, Mary Duenwald.
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