Internet InfoMedia there is no u in team unions are bad for student athletes

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The Dartmouth College basketball team has made history. It didn’t qualify for March Madness, but after a March 5 vote, the players are set to form the first union in college sports. While some people are heralding a new era for student athletes, my own experience in collegiate track and field leads me to believe that unionization will create far more losers than winners. 

On the surface, I was the ideal athlete for unionization. I walked on to the Boston College cross-country/track and field team in 2008, competing in the 5000-meter and 10,000-meter runs for the next four years. I didn’t have a scholarship; Boston College was the only school in the Atlantic Coast Conference that fielded a fully non-scholarship men’s track and field program.  

Unionization, as the argument goes, would have created a more professional environment, protecting athletes like me from exploitation. Even if I had received a scholarship, unions would have argued that I needed a defense from coaches and administrators who wanted to profit from my hard work. 

DARTMOUTH PLAYERS UNIONIZING COULD RESULT IN ‘DOMINO EFFECT’ FOR COLLEGE SPORTS, EXPERT SAYS

But unions ignore the intangibles of being a student athlete. The best teams at the best schools — think the University of Alabama football team — operate similarly to professionals in many ways. But most college teams don’t, even if the athletes take their sport seriously, like I did.  

Kendrick Law first down

Most colleges aren’t as reliably competitive as the University of Alabama, so unions might mean certain sports get shut down entirely. FILE: Alabama wide receiver Kendrick Law (19) signals a first down against Tennessee during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

For me, the shared experiences were the biggest benefits. Now 12 years after graduation, when I talk with my old teammates, they all say the same thing. We knew we were amateurs with little chance of going pro. Running in the same direction was its own reward — one we remember and cherish to this day. 

Unionization would have disrupted the camaraderie that teams need. To start, the process of organizing would have sowed dissension among us, and divisions in the locker room would have inevitably spilled over onto the track. If we’d unionized, we surely would have developed an antagonistic attitude toward our coaches and support staff. A union would likely have tried to restrict our practice and training schedules, fomenting fights to justify its existence. 

Even if there had been money involved, unionization would likely have come at a high cost. Outside the biggest college teams, athletic programs are famous for being in the red. In 2019, only 25 of the 65 schools in the five biggest conferences made money from athletics. While football and basketball teams often bring in the dough, the dozens of other teams don’t. Far from strengthening these teams, unionization is likely to endanger their very existence. 

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The reason is simple. When student athletes unionize, they automatically spike costs for their college or university. Under federal law, the athletes themselves would become employees of the college, making them eligible for a slew of benefits while increasing administrative costs.  

But unions ignore the intangibles of being a student athlete. The best teams at the best schools — think the University of Alabama football team — operate similarly to professionals in many ways. But most college teams don’t, even if the athletes take their sport seriously, like I did.  

The collective bargaining process adds money, too. As the price tag rises, colleges will look to cut expenses, which may include the most money-losing athletic programs. That often includes Olympic sports, such as track and swimming. Some schools are already shutting down programs, and as more athletes unionize, more closures will surely follow. 

Finally, there are dues, since unions won’t represent athletes for free. They’ll most likely demand a share of student scholarships, which includes bargaining for scholarships at schools that don’t offer them. Scholarship sizes will have to increase to cover student costs, yet the extra money will mean fewer scholarships overall. 

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That’s another threat to the overall number of student athletes. And once the remaining athletes are classified as employees, their scholarships and other benefits will become taxable under federal law. They’ll be paying money instead of saving it. 

The biggest athletic programs will surely be fine because athletes are more likely to get outside sponsorships and the programs themselves have more money to spare. But most student athletes aren’t famous football players earning millions of dollars as freshmen or sophomores. They’re like me — amateurs whose careers will end with a college degree. I’m thankful no one talked about unionizing when I ran track and field. If we’d taken that road, the program I loved may not even exist today. 

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