By Susan Schurman
May 6, 2014
The regional National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Northwestern University’s football players are the university’s employees, and therefore may form a union. The players voted recently, and the results are pending.
I have a different solution, however. Rather than making athletes employees, let’s allow them to major in the sport they play. Let them study for a degree in football, basketball or baseball. Let’s integrate sports into the academic curriculum.
For years I’ve watched the Division 1 athletes in classes I teach at Rutgers struggle to balance the 50- to 60-hour weekly training schedule required to earn their athletic scholarship with the demands of a top university’s academic program. The idea that these young people are primarily students with “extracurricular” participation in big-time sports — much like other students participate in intramural sports or student government — is just blatant nonsense.
Contrast their situation with students on “merit” scholarships who are able to spend that same 50 to 60 hours on their studies. No amount of tutoring and other types of support can offset this schedule imbalance. What’s amazing is how many athletes manage to do quite well in their courses.
At Rutgers, as in most of the nation’s other best universities, we pride ourselves on attracting the top students and faculty in every field. Academic achievement is our reason for being. This leads to a glaring contradiction: Division 1 competitive sports are viewed as “extra” curricular. There is no valid reason for this view beyond tradition and prejudice. There is nothing “extra” and everything “curricular” about a student-athlete’s pursuit of his or her sport.
Surely anyone who has watched a Division 1 football or basketball game can appreciate the extraordinary combination of cognitive, physical and affective abilities manifested in the skilled performances of the athletes — individually and as a team. Why is this not a performing art? At Rutgers you can choose from five majors in dance or theater — two performing arts with long academic traditions.
But you cannot major in football, basketball or any other sport. Why only dance but not football for those with high kinesthetic intelligence?
Deep-seated cultural and class prejudice, that’s why. Ever since René Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” the physical body and physical labor have been viewed as separate from and devoid of intellectual content. Labor is indelibly connected to physical exertion in Western culture, and sports — especially football and basketball — are linked to labor.
This attitude is reinforced by the fact that so many top athletes come from working-class backgrounds. Dance, on the other hand, has its roots in upper-class culture, and so we think of it as appropriate for academic studies. On some level, we expect athletes to be dumb and dancers to be bright.
Recent advances in cognitive and neuroscience reveal that Descartes was wrong: The mind and the body are exquisitely connected. Outstanding athletic performance requires an array of intellectual, emotional and motor competencies developed to the highest level. Dance deserves its place in the curriculum. But so does football.
Many will argue that I’m wrong about sports as worthy academic subjects. But the most likely reaction will simply be that I’m naïve — big-time college sports is a separate business from the academic mission of the university and is really just a farm-team system for professional sports. In that case, the NLRB has it right and these talented young people should be considered full-time employees and allowed to unionize.
Susan J. Schurman is a distinguished professor of labor studies and employment relations and dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University.