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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: A college athletes' union is long overdue

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

The quickly-approaching future for college football this season is grim. Programs nationwide are debating how and whether to move forward, and on Tuesday, the Big Ten and Pac-12 officially postponed their seasons. Given the current state of the virus, hosting stadium games — which would result in players and staff traveling across states and fans congregating to watch their teams — seems like an obvious no-go. 

Meanwhile, players from college football programs across the country have chimed in on social media to express their thoughts on the season. Players like UNC senior Patrice Rene have been honest about this season being their last chance to get serious looks from professional teams. Whether or not the season happens, the movement to organize players may be a significant turning point in the NCAA’s history of amateur sports.

The NCAA has previously responded to union proposals by claiming that there is no employment relationship between the organization and its athletes, and that participation in sports is completely voluntary. However, the NCAA has monetized the labor of amateur athletes for years through ticket sales, merchandise and advertising during televised games. In July, the organization introduced a bill to Congress that would limit the right of athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses. The bill includes sections intended to prevent athletes from unionizing and seeking compensation. It would effectively make college sports one of the least regulated industries.

The current lack of communication and transparency from the NCAA's administration has been a source of frustration for players. Players across conferences and teams have banded together on social media platforms, sharing a call to unionize under the hashtags #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay. 

Their demands include their goal to play football this season, as well as the establishment of universal mandated health and safety procedures; the opportunity to opt out of the season, and a guarantee of eligibility regardless of whether they choose to do so; and the creation of a permanent college football players association. The historic move represents the demands of players across all Power 5 conferences. This marks the latest attempt to organize since 2014, when Northwestern’s football team tried to legally organize to fight for better health protections, compensation and other benefits. In that case, The National Labor Relations Board refused to exert its authority on the burgeoning union or rule whether or not the players were employees, stopping the movement in its tracks. 

Playing a season during the pandemic poses a multitude of risks, primarily because the long-term effects of COVID-19 are still largely unknown. With questionable respiratory and cardiovascular impacts, the virus could have unforeseeable effects on the remainder of players' amateur and professional careers, as well as the circle of people they interact with daily. The NCAA largely disappointed its athletes by failing to develop a collaborative safety plan, and Ohio State has even gone so far as to draft a document for players to sign that could be construed as a liability waiver.

Most professional sports leagues are negotiating labor agreements that protect athletes from being coerced into taking risks they may be uncomfortable with. This is exactly how leagues such as the NBA were able to effectively communicate the needs of players when developing the “bubble” system that has been in place for the last several weeks, initiating the return of professional basketball to our televisions. It is what needs to happen in order for any collegiate sports return this year — and to avoid the endangerment and exploitation of college athletes by the NCAA for decades to come.

Regardless of whether or not football is played this season, college athletes should continue their work to build a larger coalition across sports, colleges and even entire conferences. It is the first step in combatting the system of power dynamics that has been used relentlessly by the NCAA to previously diminish the voices of these athletes. Establishing a player’s union could ensure that athletes have a seat at the table in the league's decision-making for years to come.


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