Pillote: Give student-athletes more authority, autonomy

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Gameday Editor

The National Labor Relations Board can’t seem to make up its mind.

In August 2015, the NLRB declined jurisdiction over the efforts of Northwestern’s football players to form a union, effectively punting on the issue of whether or not they were employees of the school. But a memo addressed to the NLRB Region 13 director released this week made the contradictory assumption that, for the purpose of amending NU’s social media guidelines for football, scholarship athletes are indeed “statutory employees.”

It’s a head-scratching memo, to say the least. The practical implications for the Wildcats are nil and the future legal ramifications murky, but what’s clearer than ever are the uncomfortable contradictions of the “student-athlete” model. Are FBS football players really employees of the school they play for, entitled to pay and other benefits, or can they still be treated as students?

That’s a question that (if it ever gets decided at all) will most likely be settled by Congress, but the release this week of the memo opens the door for an interesting reform opportunity. Instead of having the federal government and NU tussle over what players can and can’t — or should and shouldn’t — tweet, teams should let the athletes decide.

I will note NU revised its player guidelines from the original handbook cited in the memo without being compelled to do so, softening rules into suggestions and dropping a provision stating athletes’ social media accounts “may be regularly monitored by a number of sources within Northwestern University.” But many players across the country, including those at public schools not under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, are still subject to such practices. My argument applies to them, too.

If athletes are to be subject to extra guidelines, they — and not coaches or administrators — should determine what they are because that’s how almost every other student group on a college campus functions. Greek organizations maintain formal bylaws, and all registered student groups at NU are required to have a constitution. Our football players should be extended the same ability of self-determination, even if the guidelines currently in place are favorable to them.

To those who would say students participating in something as high-stakes as FBS football aren’t equipped to determine such things on their own, consider that a college football team has an incredibly deep institutional memory. Locker rooms are stocked with fifth- and even sixth-year seniors, and the purpose of electing team captains is to organize this seniority and formalize leadership. Just as older players help younger ones along on the field, so too do they off the field.

After all, much of the point of college is to prepare high school graduates to be fully-functioning adults. The phrase “Prepared for Life” is prominently displayed inside NU’s team meeting room, but that’s not fully the case if athletes are directed what to do outside of the team setting.

Put the athletes in charge, and let them decide what non-sports-related policies should be. Coaches, of course, will always determine something like practice times, but there’s no need for them to control more than that aspect of an athlete’s life.

Greater athlete autonomy will help ease the tension inherent in the “student-athlete” definition and might even lead to some meaningful reforms. It’s also the only reasonable measure that can hope to maintain the amateurism status quo in place. Something has to change; otherwise, as the NLRB discovered, it will become harder and harder to not think of student-athletes as employees.

Bobby Pillote is a McCormick senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected]. Views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of the Daily Northwestern.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote