UChicago event examines unionization in college athletics, paying student athletes

Harris Public Policy and Stone Center host discussion on sports, race and labor

Sports, race and labor—and the ways they intersect—were central topics at a recent Harris School of Public Policy panel discussion exploring the evolving landscape of college athletics.

The current debate on NCAA student athlete compensation was also at the core of the event, which was curated by Harris and the Stone Center for Research on Wealth Inequality and Mobility. But as Assoc. Prof. Geoffrey Wodtke said at the Feb. 23 discussion, panelists also dug in on “how the events and conflicts unfolding in this setting may reflect or resonate with broader social issues such as a resurgent labor movement, the corporatization of higher education, and renewed efforts to overcome persistent racial inequalities.” 

Moderated by Assoc. Prof. Damon Jones, the event—part of the Harris School's Black History Month celebration—featured sports commentator and podcaster Bomani Jones, Prof. Matthew Notowidigdo of the Booth School of Business, Prof. Ilyana Kuziemko of Princeton University and Prof. Emeritus Kenneth Shropshire of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It was co-hosted by the Center for the Study of Race, Culture and Politics.

Armed with slides and stats, insights and humor, panelists took the Keller Center audience on a journey stretching from the union halls of the 1930s to the football fields of today’s largest universities. Against the backdrop of what they called the "Wild West” of college sports, panelists examined whether student athletes should be paid; if so, how much; how race factors into this picture; and poked at myths of the “amateur” athlete while acknowledging the nostalgia Americans feel for college sports and the worries many have about it changing.

Recent NCAA policies allow athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. And just days before the panel discussion, a National Labor Relations Board regional manager ruled that Dartmouth men's basketball team could vote to form a union

Fears that college sports won't be as “cool” as they used to be if student athletes are paid “is not a good enough reason not to pay them,” Bomani Jones said. “But we don't have to ignore the fact that it's probably going to feel just a little bit different.” 

Here’s a look at the discussion highlights:

Unions in college athletics

College athletes’ efforts to organize are not new. Northwestern University football players tried to form a union in 2014, an effort ultimately quashed by the National Labor Relations Board in 2015.

More recently, the College Football Players Association (CFBPA), while not officially a union, launched in 2021 to organize players, attributing its creation to team members having to return to play during the pandemic.

“It's interesting how COVID-19 really was a trigger for a lot of unionization, and it was because of working conditions and safety,” Kuziemko said. “One thing that's always been true about unions: it's not just the wage premium, it's the standardization of practices, better benefits and having a spelled-out grievance procedure.”

The union premium, she explained, is that unionized workers consistently earn 10% to 20% more than similar, non-unionized workers. In parallel, she said, “we've seen Black workers at the forefront of what appears to be a new resurgence in union activity in the U.S.”

While many members of the Black community were barred from membership in the early decades of U.S. unions, they are now over-represented relative to their share of the population, she said. 

“This tradition of Black leadership in the union movement has also played out in sports,” she said, pointing to Curt Flood, who challenged the Major League Baseball reserve clause. “Essentially he gives up his career doing so in 1969,” she said. “But he paved the way for free agency for future generations of baseball players. And then we saw, again, Black athletes leading the attempts to organize the Northwestern football team.”

Who profits from college sports?

College athletes, particularly those in high-revenue sports like football and basketball at large universities, often generate significant revenue for their respective institutions through ways including merchandise and broadcasting rights. 

But does the wealth from those marquee sports at Power Five universities benefit athletes from low-income communities recruited for those teams? Not according to Notowidigdo, who shared data from a working paper he co-authored entitled “Who Profits from Amateurism? Rent-Sharing in Modern College Sports.”

Football and basketball revenue, he said, is being redistributed within athletic departments for things including other sports, coaches’ salaries, and athletic facilities. 

Players on basketball and football teams of the Power Five are nearly 50 percent Black, according to NCAA data.

According to Notowidigdo and his co-authors’ research, “when you look at the neighborhood where these student athletes come from, the way that we summarize it at the end of the paper is that this kind of rent-sharing or profit-sharing in the athletic department is essentially transferring resources away from student athletes who are more likely to be Black and more likely to come from poor neighborhoods toward the student athletes playing other sports, who themselves are more likely to be white and more likely to come from higher income neighborhoods.”

Should we pay college athletes?

Fewer than 2% of college athletes go on to play in the pros, according to NCAA data from 2020.

“So, as we talk about all this money, all these opportunities, and ask: ‘Should we compensate athletes?’ To me, it’s ‘how do we get athletes out of these schools with meaningful degrees?’ ” Shropshire said. “Let's use all the funding we can in that kind of way."

Additionally, panelists pointed to how students playing on football and basketball teams often face major obstacles in pursuing their education. Practices, meetings, games, and travel all cut into time that would be spent in the classroom or studying, or they make taking a specific class impossible. Some NCAA Division I football players say they are spending up to 60 hours a week on sports-related activities during the season. 

Power lies with the institutions

Back in 2020, Bomani Jones wrote an article for Vanity Fair called “College Football Players Are Unpaid Stars on the Field—And Have No Power Off It.” What, if anything has changed since then, Damon Jones asked, and who today holds the power? 

“The power remains with the institutions,” Bomani Jones said. “It's not even really with individual people. The power comes from the institution, the power comes from the brands. And if you view this almost in the context of feudalism, these players are the serfs who till the land.

“If we stand with them,” he said, “then they have some measure of power. We ain't doing that. So, the power stays with the people who have control of all the resources;  always has been the case and will remain the case.

“I would also like to make note, though, that when it was just white dudes, they weren't paying them either,” he added.

Changing the narrative

During the Q&A that followed the discussion, one audience member asked Shropshire: “When we’re not dealing with crisis like 2020, how do we build better arguments to move the public or institutions? How do we change the narrative to open up spaces for people to appreciate the labor in the form of the players?”

“I don't know the answer,” Shropshire said, “because you are fighting against the ‘good old days,’ the raccoon coats and the cheerleaders and all that stuff is what people still in charge will take you back to. So, you have to fight against that narrative. With all the technical data-driven logic, look where these dollars are. It's not going to the labor. And in every other sector we pay attention to making sure labor is properly compensated.”

—Adapted from a story that was first published on the Harris School of Public Policy website.