Northwestern's unionization may force NCAA to make adjustments

The Spectrum

There are two sides to the argument that student-athletes should be paid: those who think an education is enough, and those who think it isn't.

The truth is that the argument is much more complex than that, which is why the Northwestern football players' efforts to be unionized are so important.

Since the NCAA's inception in 1910, it has been an organization ensuring college athletes are amateurs. Many things have changed in the 104 years since its creation, but the NCAA still strictly enforces the amateur athlete rule.

The problem with this is the world has changed since then. Sports have always been deeply intertwined with American culture, but in the past century, professional athletes' salaries have grown exponentially while the popularity of college sports have flourished.

While the 'pay-to-play' argument may be murky, one thing is clear: the NCAA needs to make changes.

The biggest problem with the way the NCAA operates now is the profits that schools are allowed to make at the expense of their student-athletes.

Just last year, former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard was sued for using a picture of himself in college on his website.

The photo in question was taken shortly after Howard returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown against Ohio State in 1991. Howard struck the pose held by the sculpture of NYU running back Ed Smith on the Heisman Trophy after reaching the end zone for one of the most iconic moments in college football history.

Because Howard was an amateur athlete at the time, he held no rights to the photo. Recently, Howard reached an agreement with the photographer that allows him to use the picture as long as the photographer "benefits from the commercial use of the photo."

Howard attempted to buy the rights to the photo last year, but the $200,000 was too steep for him.

There is something morally wrong with the situation when the NCAA gets between a player and his/her ability to use an image of his/herself from more than 20 years ago.

The other issue here revolves around the extreme stress student-athletes put on their body, particularly in the sport of football.

Across the country, universities are cashing in on the popularity of college athletics, but all the students get in return is an education. While the opportunity to attend college for free should not be undervalued, the cost of physical and mental injuries sustained on the college playing field can affect athletes for decades after the conclusion of their college careers.

With recent discoveries about the effect of traumatic hits to the head in football, these problems are now more prevalent than ever.

Particularly for student-athletes who don't go pro, there is a large risk of experiencing physical and mental health complications down the road from injuries that took place while on the playing field in college.

Currently there is no system in place to help athletes after their careers have ended or protect them from consequences while on the field. How could student-athletes be expected to benefit from their college degrees if they are suffering from CTE or physical maladies that are rooted in the hours they spent on the court or field representing their institution?

The best example of such an incident is Eric LeGrand. LeGrand was a player at Rutgers who was paralyzed in 2010 after being injured on the football field.

That seems like an awfully high price for an education.

That is why Northwestern's efforts to unionize are so important. I don't believe athletes should receive a stipend, but I do believe they should receive some sort of compensation for putting their bodies on the line for a good portion of their physical prime in the name of school spirit.

Though some athletes will have the opportunity to play professionally and capitalize on their physical skills, the vast majority won't and will be going into careers based on their degrees, which the NCAA preaches as being an important part of their vision.

But if these athletes' bodies and minds are injured beyond repair before they can even graduate, they won't be able to take advantage of their degrees to the fullest extent.

At the end of the day, student-athletes are employees for their institutions. After all, college uniforms are among the most prevalent imagery associated with the biggest and most prestigious schools in the country.

The NCAA has needed to adjust its course for a while - some look at the SMU 'death penalty' incident in the 1980s as the beginning - but if more teams begin to unionize, that change will have to come sooner rather than later.

If the NCAA doesn't change, it could be looking at the end of its existence.