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Education in Crisis

Why Higher Education Should Rid Itself of College Athletics

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

The late March ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that NCAA players are legally allowed to form student athletic unions sent shockwaves through the college sports community.  The ruling was celebrated by many liberals and progressives who want to see college athletes (who are unpaid) share more fairly in the money earned by higher ed sports.  At a time when the NCAA is running record surpluses ($71 million in 2012), and sports-oriented “Big Ten” schools are raking in cash for sports events ($315 million total in 2012 alone), college athletes are asking: where’s my cut?

The unionization of student athletes is already being delayed due to opposition from Northwestern University administrators – the school that was party to original NLRB ruling.  A majority of football players at Northwestern will likely vote in favor of unionizing, but the university is busy fighting the ruling via appeal.  Labor representatives speaking for Northwestern football players recently dismissed the school’s legal argument against unionization (citing that college athletes aren’t actually employees) as “a castle built on sand.”  Many seem to think the appeal is unlikely to succeed in the short term, and that a vote on unionization could take place at Northwestern by April 25.

I have no problem with employees forming unions in the pursuit of collective bargaining rights and personal and collective empowerment; in fact I’ve been an enthusiastic union representative at my current teaching institution, and am actively involved in union politics and advocacy in association with the Illinois Federation of Teachers.  However, the hoopla over the NLRB ruling in college sports may ultimately be missing the point.  In an era when college athletes are nearly untouchable in terms of the lack of punishments for legal infractions, and when schools are suffering from massive budget shortfalls, I wonder why colleges and universities are wasting any money on sports-related activities.

Advocates of college sports will claim that these activities are vital for building school pride and that many bring in needed revenues for schools.  The revenues claim is largely false for all but the most successful sporting programs, as these activities usually cost non-elite schools (and even elite ones) significantly more than their monetary turns.  On the school pride point, I would respond with a question: what good is civic pride if the rest of the university or college is collapsing under its own weight?  In the era of declining tenure, the adjunctification of higher ed, massive budget cuts, and skyrocketing tuition rates, spending millions on college athletics seems like an unnecessary indulgence and a misappropriation of valuable funds.

College athletics are not essential (and often antithetical) to the primary missions of higher education: promoting critical thought and the developing of occupational skills.   The groupthink...

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