Tarek Saleh used to wear Badger red, number 42 for the University of Wisconsin. After graduation, he played five years in the NFL. That makes four years on the field without a union, and five under that labor protection.
In Saleh’s opinion, it should stay that way.
“You get into the unionization and creating this business atmosphere, there are a lot guys that won't be able to play,” Saleh said. “And that's the other thing. Who is making the money? Which sports are making the money?”
In a ruling Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said players on the Northwestern University football team are employees of the school and not simply student athletes. The athletes who fought for the right to unionize brought up demands like medical care for current and former players, concussion prevention, and payments from sponsorship deals.
“College athletes are not explicitly making pay demands. This is not about pay to play. This is about having some sort of voice in their working conditions,” UW sociologist and union expert Barry Eidlin said.
Eidlin called this decision a win for those playing sports for a school, saying the amount of time athletes work put in for their college and the amount of money they bring in are both significant enough to say they’re employed.
“There are whole layers of people in the university that generate large amounts of the university's revenue who are not getting paid or are getting paid far below what they’re worth,” Eidlin said.
Northwestern does plan to appeal the decision, and Eidlin said it could make it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the ruling is upheld, Eidlin said the newly formed College Athletes Players Association would be able to organize other football players at other private universities. He said teams at public schools would have to go through their state labor boards.
“If the university is going to try to emulate business, we should not be surprised that other parts of the university should do so as well to protect their working conditions and to have a better life for themselves, to have more of a voice in that process,” Eidlin said.
Saleh said he understands now more than ever the importance of educating a college athlete.
“To create a union, I just don't think that's in the contest of being a student athlete. I think if you take it that far, you're going to end up making it a business,” Saleh said.
A union means collective bargaining rights, and Saleh said there are other ways to compensate an athlete other than a paycheck. He said the NCAA should come to the table and talk about better food options, housing help, and traveling expenses for athletes. However, Saleh said a union would be a waste of time and money.
“I just the NCAA just needs to reevaluate themselves,” Saleh said. “It doesn't need to be taken to the point where student athletes need to unionize.”