On the being and essence of student athletes

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In Aug. 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B.) refused to make a decision on whether football players at Northwestern University were allowed to unionize. The board argued that they could not promote labor stability by unionizing a single team out of 125 in the league of which Northwestern is a member. As a result, the debate about unionizing college sports died down.

However, on Aug. 23 of this year, the N.L.R.B. ruled that teaching assistants at private universities can unionize, since the relationship of teaching assistants to their university is that of a common law employee. This ruling has served to reignite the debate over student-athlete unionization, since football in the NCAA is a multimillion-dollar association because of the 40-50 hours of work that athletes – paid in scholarships – put into practice every week.

Since the University of Dallas is a Division III school, it gives out no athletic scholarships and does not profit from athletics, so the prospect of unionized athletes is not likely to have significant effects on its athletics. However, at the heart of the debate is the question of the very nature of student-athletes. Where does the emphasis lie: on the student or the athlete?

In last week’s coaching spotlight, women’s volleyball coach Prentice Lewis touched on the issue when she referenced UD’s classroom policy. Because school policy requires students to attend class, student-athletes are put in a difficult position when sporting events require them to miss class.

It is true that the bulletin leaves room for athletes to miss class, stating that students should not be penalized for missing class due to athletic events. However, the ambiguous wording of the exception, including the statement that, “this policy does not extend the number of days students may miss class,” ultimately leaves the issue to the professor’s discretion.

And in fact, the debate extends far beyond the legal details of classroom attendance.

Consider the spirit of the policy: The university considers attendance to be so important for education that students are required attend class. If this is the case, then why would the university allow students to participate in programs that entail significant constraints on their ability to attend classes – constraints that result from traveling, practice times, injuries and many other concerns intrinsic to collegiate athletics?

I do not bring this up in order to criticize student-athletes or to say that students should not be allowed to participate in athletics. Rather, I note this because it seems to me that these are issues that should somehow be addressed.

Have any comments, questions or suggestions for our columnist? Please contact Joseph Roth at jroth@udallas.edu.

 

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