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Northwestern University college football players cast ballots last week on whether to unionize. The results of that vote are still unknown. Even if the players voted to join a union, legal actions could stall that from taking place for months or even years.
But the vote has stirred debate over whether college athletes deserve to be paid.
University of Delaware president Patrick Harker is a vocal opponent of paying college athletes.
He tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that 90 percent of colleges and universities don’t make money from their sports programs. Harker says he would have to shut down the University of Delaware’s varsity sports program if student athletes won the right to be paid.
“Don’t let the exception be the rule,” Harker said. “There are those programs that make a lot of money, but they are not the majority of Division I athletics. And I say this not just as a university president, but I was a student athlete too, many years ago, with many injuries ago. And I learned a lot out of that experience and I don’t want us to lose those opportunities for this generation of student athletes.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW, and it could be months before we learn how Northwestern University football players voted on whether to unionize. The players cast ballots last week, and if they vote to form a union, other private schools could follow suit. University of Delaware President Patrick Harker says that would be bad for universities and students. He's a member of the board of directors for the NCAA Division I and joins us in the studios. Welcome.
PATRICK HARKER: Thanks, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, you have said that unions would be a disaster for universities for student athletes. Why?
HARKER: Well, let's start off with the facts of Division I athletics. Most of us, the vast majority of us, don't make money on athletics. We do it, not to make money, but because we think it's important for the student athlete. And so if unions came in, and our cost increased, we'd have to cut sports and possibly cut all varsity sports in our case, because we just couldn't afford it anymore.
HOBSON: But some schools do make a lot of money on student athletics. I'm thinking of the University of Texas. It's more than $100 million in revenue per year. And we're looking at, for college football playoffs, the new TV contract, $7 billion over 10 years.
HARKER: Don't let the exception be the rule. What I worry about is there are those programs that make a lot of money, but they are not the majority of Division I athletics. And I say this not just as a university president, but I was a student athlete, too, many years ago with many injuries ago. And I learned a lot out of that experience. And I don't want us to lose those opportunities for this generation of student athletes.
HOBSON: But haven't things changed significantly since you were a student athlete in terms of how much money is at stake with these athletics and the games and the TV contracts and all that?
HARKER: For certain schools. At our level, FCS Football, or people would know it as 1AA football, when we're on TV, there's no revenue. We don't get that revenue. We're playing for the sheer love of the sport, for the opportunity that the students have and for our communities. And so again, we look at those few programs that make money, and we say everybody's making money, and it's just not true.
HOBSON: Let's talk about some of the other arguments that have come up because there have been several. An article in the Buffalo Law Review argues that the students are beholden to a coach who has the power to control and direct the athletes in the same way that employers control their workers. These are not really students in the traditional sense of the word.
HARKER: And I think that is a problem. First, don't label all universities the same. We try very hard to limit that so students get a real college experience and a real education. Are there institutions that don't do it right? Of course, that's true of anything in life. But we shouldn't use those as the examples. We should look at the bulk of Division I athletics in the U.S. and Division II and Division III. The vast majority of student athletes on our campuses today will never make a living in athletics. They need an education.
And if we are creating situations where the student athletes are not able to get that education, then let's fix that. Let's not make them semi-pros.
HOBSON: How do you fix that problem?
HARKER: I think we have to continue to push back on the expansion of athletics and the expansion of the amount of time students have to spend on it. And this is an issue not just at colleges. It starts in high school. Frankly it starts in middle school, where families are putting way too much emphasis on athletics.
It's generated by the fear of the cost of education. I understand that. So people think I need to get an athletic scholarship.
HOBSON: This is how I can get a scholarship. This is how I can go to school for free, right.
HARKER: It happens - my wife is a middle school teacher, advanced math middle school teacher. And parents will come to her saying you're giving my son or daughter too much homework, and it's interfering with their soccer games. These are seventh graders, eighth graders. When I say we have a problem in society, I really do believe that, and we, the universities, should be leading those changes and pulling back a little bit so that student athletes and students can participate in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. One of those is athletics.
HOBSON: So how do we do that? How do we change that culture because it's not something that just exists in school. We just saw this whole controversy with Donald Sterling and the L.A. Clippers and somebody who clearly viewed his players in a different way than we would think he would view them.
HARKER: Yeah, that's a big question. That's the, you know, the question that everybody's debating right now. But I think it is the question we have to debate. I don't have the magic ball for how to do that, but I think that is the question. It's not about unionization. It's not about making college athletes paid employees. It's about pushing back on this and getting back to something where we're really looking at the long-term benefits and the long-term education of our students.
HOBSON: Some people may look at what you're saying and think that you're trying to be a union buster.
HARKER: No, I don't think it's a - I'm not a union buster at all. In fact we have a unionized faculty. We have unionized trades at our university. What I'm worried about is the students getting an education. That's why we're here. And we know - the evidence is - look at the evidence in the NFL. The average tenure in the NFL is three and a half years.
You graduate from college, you make the NFL, you're in your mid- to late 20s, and you're done. If you don't have an education, you're not going to be successful in your life.
HOBSON: What about injuries that athletes often suffer, that because of what they're doing, which does benefit the university, even if it's not a money maker in the end, that that is something that, if they were an employee of the university, it would be treated differently than the fact that they're a student.
HARKER: We take care of our student athletes when they get injured until they're healed. But let's - I don't think treating them as employees is the answer.
HOBSON: But if they were employees, and they were injured, they would be entitled to things like workman's comp benefits.
HARKER: So how would we do this? So think about this, right. So we make them employees. That means not only for the football and basketball players, but with Title IX, we have to do that with all our student athletes. Now our costs have gone up dramatically. How can we afford to keep doing this? We would just drop sports.
And I'll tell you what we would do at the University of Delaware. Most likely we would drop all our varsity sports down to club status because we simply could not afford to provide varsity athletics.
HOBSON: Well, what's wrong with that?
HARKER: Well, there's an argument there that it's possible that that is something that we should consider. The things that you take away are for the vast majority of our 600 student athletes, half of whom are on scholarships, are those scholarships. We're helping these young people get through college.
The vast majority of our athletic budget is scholarship money. It's not coaches' salaries. At our level, coaches are not making millions of dollars.
HOBSON: But you're doing that for what purpose? What does the University of Delaware get out of offering a scholarship to an athlete who otherwise, you're saying, would not have been able to attend the school?
HARKER: Well, we offer scholarships for music majors, for people in the band. So we offer scholarships for a whole variety of things. It's not just for athletics. We do that because we want a rich, diverse student body on campus, and we want to help those students achieve. So - and in addition for athletics, we also provide for the community, just like we do with our theater program and our music program, outreach efforts and ways so that the students can perform in front of them and learn their trade if in fact they want to be a professional musician or a professional athlete. But the majority are not going to do that.
HOBSON: But the part that you've left out of that is that often a lot of alumni donations come because people get attached to the sports. They love coming back to the games.
HARKER: The evidence...
HOBSON: And ticket sales and TV rights and all that.
HARKER: But again, we don't break even...
HOBSON: You're not making money, but some schools are.
HARKER: Some, but not the majority. And evidence - Bill Bowen(ph) and others have written about this - the evidence that alumni donations across American higher education are generated because of athletic success - the evidence there is very mixed.
HOBSON: Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware, and we will link you to his op-ed on this subject at hereandnow.org. Patrick Harker, thanks for coming in.
HARKER: Thank you.
HOBSON: And what do you think? Should student athletes be forming unions, or do you agree with President Harker that it is a bad idea? You can weigh in at hereandnow.org. You can also send us a tweet @hereandnow, @jeremyhobson, @hereandnowrobin. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.