Recent legal decisions—such as the NLRB’s ruling that Northwestern University’s football players are employees of the school and are therefore entitled to a union election, and U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s ruling on the so-called O’Bannon case, which will enable football and men’s basketball players to receive more from schools than they are receiving now—have raised lots of important questions about how we look at and compensate the work performed by student-athletes in American colleges and universities.
One of the most interesting issues has to do with unpaid labor. Here’s the New York Times editorial board on the O’Bannon ruling:
The N.C.A.A. and its member institutions have no one to blame but themselves for any unintended negative consequences. They built a lucrative commercial enterprise that depended in large part on unpaid labor. Now they have to move forward without exploiting the very students they have always purported to protect.
That’s right: U.S. colleges and universities have been producing and selling athletic performances—especially, but not only, football and basketball games—that are produced by student-athletes who are not paid for their labor. The players do receive some compensation, such as tuition and room and board (and, on the O’Bannon ruling, will be permitted to receive money to defray some additional costs of attending school) but they are not being paid for the total value they produce for the schools they attend. Therefore, the players are performing unpaid labor.*
But why stop there? It may be easier to see unpaid labor when workers, such as student-athletes, receive absolutely no pay—and their employers are raking in huge sums of money from the work they perform. But why not then identify and do something about all the other forms of unpaid labor being performed in our economy? I’m thinking, for example, of autoworkers, restaurant employees, nurses, daycare workers, and so on, all of whom receive wages but wages that are much less than the total value they produce. They, too, are performing unpaid labor, which is then appropriated by their employers and serves as the source of the enterprises’ profits.
No amount of tinkering with workers’ compensation—whether in the form of establishing a trust fund for student-athletes or raising minimum wages or increasing wages through market pressure or collective bargaining—will ultimately eliminate that unpaid labor. It may diminish it, by changing the ratio of unpaid to paid labor, but vast amounts of unpaid labor will continue to exist.
And that’s the problem that needs to be solved, both on American campuses and in the wider economy.
*In Marxian terms, the players are productive laborers and, by virtue of creating surplus-value, are being exploited by their capitalist employers, the boards of trustees of the colleges and universities where they work. Much of that extra value is retained by the athletic departments (which is then used to pay head coaches, their coaching staffs, and to build new, start-of-the-art athletic facilities), and another large portion is distributed to the NCAA. Hence, the opposition of the schools, coaches, and the NCAA to any measure that increases the bargaining power of the student-athlete-workers.