Our View | Students, athletes; but not employees

People heading to Beaver Stadium on Saturday for a glimpse of the Nittany Lions football team should be concerned about the implications of a legal battle involving Big Ten Conference rival Northwestern.

Last month, an official with the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board upheld a Northwestern player’s contention that members of college teams are employees of a university and should be permitted to unionize.

Northwestern on Wednesday appealed that decision, while the school’s football players are set to vote April 25 on whether to move forward with forming a union.

For now, the NLRB case involves only private institutions, not public universities such as Penn State. But the implications for broader application of the case should scare all university leaders and fans of college sports — even the student-athletes themselves, who need to fully understand what would come with being classified as university employees.

Those players would gain income, but would lose much in the process.

For example, they would pay taxes on that income and would suddenly face costs such as union dues, tuition, room and board, and health care premiums. Tuition and housing run about $14,000 per semester, including books and activity fees, for most in-state Penn State students.

In addition, student-athletes have access to trainers and sports injury specialists. They get academic counseling. Those on scholarship don’t have to worry about student-loan debt, as their classmates do.

We see such a shift bringing other serious questions, such as:

•  Would private schools gain an advantage in recruiting if they are in the position of negotiating wages with potential athletes?

•  If this movement expands to include public universities, would richer schools — such as Alabama, Ohio State and Southern California — be better able to absorb higher costs that might crush smaller institutions, broadening the competitiveness gap?

•  If a player is considered an employee, could she or he be “fired” for under-performing? Being benched doesn’t mean you lose your scholarship.

•  Would players be tempted to strike for higher wages or better locker rooms with a big game looming?

Most collegiate athletics programs do not operate in the black. At Penn State, football and men’s basketball pay the bills for all other varsity sports.

That includes expenses for facilities, equipment, uniforms, travel, coaches and support staff.

Would such a system create inequality on the football roster? Would the starting quarterback be able to negotiate a “better contract” than the tackle who keeps him safe in the pocket?

And would fairness issues arise between men’s and women’s programs?

Between football programs and other nonrevenue sports, such as swimming, tennis and track?

We agree that athletes work hard and put in many long hours. But so do other students who have fewer benefits.

Athletes help generate revenue for their schools. And those on scholarship are paid in many ways — including with access to an education that will take most of them further than aspirations of NFL or NBA glory.

The Northwestern situation has fueled a healthy dialogue about the roles of student-athletes and the big-time money generated by TV contracts and filled stadiums. Colleges and the NCAA should always be looking for ways to enhance the experience and ease the burden on students who also happen to compete in sports.

And we hope the Northwestern skirmish has many involved in collegiate sports examining their own programs, and the value of the opportunities offered at University Park and campuses across the country.

We urge the NLRB to reverse the Northwestern decision.

And we urge college- and high school-age competitors to recognize the unanswered questions and potential pitfalls that accompany any movement to turn student-athletes into paid professionals.