July 17, 2019 | 92° F

Rutgers hosts Olympic medalist, activist for discussion on college athletics

Photo by samantha casimir |

John Carlos, a former U.S. Olympian, spoke about student-athletes in a lecture. They should be considered workers, but are not at present.

Sometimes actions are worth the consequences.

On Monday, Olympic medalist and social justice activist John Carlos, who gave a black power salute after winning a bronze medal for the 200-meter race, joined David Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, faculty and students to discuss the state of college athletics.

After a discussion of Carlos's activism and life, the event, which was hosted the Rutgers chapter of Black Lives Matter, Undergraduate Academic Affairs, the Black Men's Collective and the Livingston Dean of Students, ventured into the treatment of student-athletes.

“Any Ivy League school in four years, you're going to pay $200,000 for a scholarship,” Carlos said. “If I told you you were a superstar … how many bags of peanuts do you think you sold that first year? That covers that $200,000 right there, but you've got three more years to go.”

The National Collegiate Athletics Association prohibits players from receiving a salary for participating in athletics. According to the organization’s website, players are also prohibited from agreeing to representation from agents.

The NCAA imposes these limits, named amateurism rules, in order to preserve the educational experiences of its players. These students, according to the website, are students first and athletes second.

The American Association of University Professors—American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT), Rutgers’ faculty union and one of the event's hosts, disagrees.

At a meeting in November 2015, the union’s executive council considered various questions regarding college athletics, said Rutgers AAUP-AFT President David Hughes.

The AAUP’s chief concern, he said, lays with the exploitation of workers — and the union considers student-athletes to be just that.

“The people who participate in the revenue support, namely men's and women's basketball and football, to our mind, are very much working, in fact working very hard for the University,” he said. “They are putting hours in excess of a full-time job, they are working in dangerous conditions and suffering workplace hazards, namely injuries, and they're earning lots and lots of money for the University.”

During the 2013-2014 school year, Rutgers’ football program brought in just less than $2 million. The men’s basketball program brought in just less than $1.5 million, and the women’s basketball program lost a little more than $2 million.

The law, in this case, is not on the players’ side.

According to the Daily Northwestern, the Northwestern University football team announced its intent to unionize in early 2014. After about one month of deliberation, a regional branch of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favor of the players and their union, the College Athletes Players Association, declaring that student-athletes were university employees.

The decision was voided on Aug. 17, 2015, after the NLRB unanimously denied jurisdiction over the case.

A press release by the board said “asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability due to the nature and structure of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).” 

The NLRB’s lack of jurisdiction over public universities contributed to the board’s decision.

“Northwestern did it the way they were told they were supposed to do it, they filed with the (National Labor Relations Board), they issued their statement, they rallied, they petitioned, they found resistance, they found a voice in the NLRB,” Zirin said.

The Coalition to Protect and Improve the Student-Athlete Experience, a coalition representing 31 of the largest conferences in college sports, including the Big Ten Conference, applauded the decision, which reversed the regional branch’s ruling and halted the Wildcats’ unionization efforts.

“The NLRB made the right call,” the coalition said in a statement released shortly after the ruling. “It’s important to remember we are talking about students, not employees. Regardless of this ruling, our goal is to educate students and help them so they can be successful in college and in life.”

While the players may not legally be university employees, they exercise a degree of power over any institution of higher learning as a result of their unique position within the school. The point is best illustrated by the actions of the University of Missouri’s football team last year.

During protests prompted by reports of racism on campus, the football team issued an ultimatum. The team would not play until protesters’ demands were met. According to the New York Times, the players’ strike could have cost the University more than $1 million in lost revenue.

The University’s administration quickly capitulated. Wolfe resigned on Nov. 9, 2015, a day after the boycott was declared.

“The main lesson from Missouri is that, I think, athletes at the collegiate level have an unbelievable amount of untapped power,” Zirin said. “The Missouri football players took an 80-year discussion and put it on fast-forward in a matter of 48 hours simply because they folded their arms and said, 'We refuse to play until this is resolved.'”

According to a January 2014 press release provided by Rutgers, the Big Ten Conference does not believe full-time student-athletes are employees of their universities, but it respects the rights of students to “pursue their beliefs” through the legal system.

“The union is a safe space for anybody involved in athletics to come and talk about their issues. We don't report to the administration, we're legally separate from the administration,” Hughes said. “We're open and we're having some of these conversations but we're open to having more of them.”

The University did not respond to requests for additional comments before press time.

Nikita Biryukov is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. He is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @nikitabiryukov_ for more.

Nikita Biryukov

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