NCAA president warns of adverse effects from student athlete unions

NCAA President Mark Emmert warned that a recent ruling that Northwestern University football players can legally unionize could have profound repercussions throughout the world of college athletics, including a loss of revenue necessary to fund sports other than men's football and basketball.

Emmert, who appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation," spoke after the National Labor Relations Board said that football players at Northwestern, a Big Ten school, qualify as employees under federal law.

"But I don't think that unionizing the student athletes and turning them into unionized employees of universities is a way to improve their success," Emmert said.

Not only would the scholarship money for tuition, room and board and supplies that many receive likely qualify as taxable income, but it would raise questions about the relationship between a student and the school, he said.

"If they drop a ball, do they get fired? How do you recruit them? Do you hire them? Do you trade them? I mean, what does that relationship look like is anyone's guess now," Emmert said.

NCAA rules prohibit athletes from being paid to play, but lawyers for the athletes argued that the ability of college football to generate billions of dollars in profits relies on football players' labor, making the relationship between school and athlete like one between an employer and employee. Though Emmert conceded that the sports generate huge revenue, he argued that the athletes gain the value of an education, which leads them to enjoy higher earnings later than life. Many will graduate without any student loan debt as well.

Emmert also said that the money, which primarily comes from football and basketball, pays for "all of the other expenses in intercollegiate athletics."

"Track and field, soccer, women's volleyball, women's basketball -- all of those sports are paid for by the revenue that comes in from two sports that drive all of that activity. So the notion that somehow universities are taking that money and putting it in the bank is utterly erroneous. They're using it to pay for nearly a half a million student athletes," Emmert said.

He said that the unionization could extend to all college athletes, and predicted the case would end up at the Supreme Court.

Emmert argued in favor of other reforms to college athletics, such as addressing the extensive time demands placed on successful student athletes.

"We have kids playing sports 12 months out of the year. And I think we as a society need to rebalance that a lot," he said.

He also said that schools could increase the size of the scholarships they offer, in order to add several thousand dollars more in "resources" for students.

"The game changer for life is getting that degree and that education," he said. "We need to make sure that we're doing everything humanly possibly around health and wellness and the support of student athletes around their well-being."
  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for