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Big Time College Sports: Fairness, Compensation, Unionization and Ramen Noodles

By Matt Oakes Posted April 24, 2014 at 6:43 pm

“Kelly, you don’t go to bed hungry, do you?” UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham jokes with senior UNC women’s soccer player Kelly McFarlane.

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The banter was revolving around the new NCAA food policy that is set to allow student-athletes unlimited access to meals.

Cunningham says this will take away an invaluable aspect of the college experience.

“You wouldn’t have a real college experience if you don’t have to boil Ramen noodles at some point. Every college student has to do that,” Cunningham says.

But all jokes aside, Cunningham says he’s worried about the feasibility of allowing schools to provide an unlimited meal plan for their student-athletes. He says he thought the policy opens up the possibility of over-the-top midnight buffets and excessive snacking.

Cunningham also worries that only the elite athletic programs will be able to foot the $1.5 million bill for providing their players unlimited food access.

UNC Associate Professor Lew Margolis takes issue with the very term “student-athlete”.

“It’s a fabrication of the 1950’s. It was created so that universities would not have to meet obligations to athletes who sustained serious, or in some cases, life-changing injuries. I think that history and our misuse of the term ‘student-athlete’ is why students at Northwestern and elsewhere were motivated to look into a union,” Margolis says.

Photo courtesy of Susan Murray

Photo courtesy of Susan Murray

In contrast, Cunningham says he embraces the term, saying the “student” part of the word takes precedence.

“I think the primary role of a student-athlete is to be a student. Participation in sport is something that I value and think adds an awful lot to their experience, but I do not think they should be considered employees,” Cunningham says.

The ‘employee’ debate has given rise to a tide of support for the potential unionization of players at the college level. In fact, at private Northwestern University, football players are taking a vote on whether or not to form a union.

McFarlane stops short of calling her play on the soccer field a job, but she does say the immense time commitment disallows her from seeking part-time employment.

“In terms of the time it takes, we refer to it like it’s a job. It’s not like I have time to get another job or something like that,” McFarlane says.

Bubba Cunningham (Susan Murray)

Bubba Cunningham (Susan Murray)

Dr. Deborah Stroman, a faculty member in the UNC Exercise and Sport Science department, says she has mixed feelings concerning the potential for college player unions.

“It’s very, very complex to have a union – everything from the compensation and taking an 18-year old and having them go to union meetings. I’m excited for the students. I know they’re excited and learning a lot. But I think they’re all going to be cautious when they really understand what it means to have a union,” Stroman says.

The hour-long roundtable could have extended on for the entirety of the afternoon, but the rising question at Chapel Hill and around the nation concerning high-level college sports was brilliantly posed by Margolis.

“In the interest of fairness, individuals should be compensated according to the talent they provide. Is it fair for them to not benefit beyond the scholarship? Now billions of dollars are being generated by the talents of football and basketball players. Is that fair? To me, it’s a fundamental question of fairness,” Margolis says.

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