Northwestern University football players have filed a petition to form labor union and are fighting for the right to be paid as employees of the university. “Employees” of the university? Since when does getting the chance to play a game you love every single day constitute as a job?

Northwestern players have argued that they should be paid for their services because they qualify as employees based on the amount of time and work they are forced to put in every week. They claim the issue isn’t about pay-for-play, but they want to get paid for what it takes to be a part of the team. How does that not qualify as being paid to play? The only reason those players are on the team is because the coach, on behalf of the university, offered them an opportunity to play football.

According to the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago an "employee” is a person who [1] is under contract of hire to [2] perform services for another, [3] subject to the employer's control, and [4] in return for payment. According to Peter Sung Ohr, the Region 13 director who issued the ruling granting the players unionization, [1] the letter of intent and scholarship offer is the employment contract, [2] the hours of practice and play that generates millions of dollars of revenue for the school are the employer's benefits, [3] the coach's rules are the control, and [4] the scholarship itself is the pay.
So yes, technically by the standards of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago these football players can be considered employees based on the time commitment it takes to be on the team. There’s a demanding time commitment, a strict schedule, limited vacation breaks, and no real offseason. And there is a certain amount of control over their lives, as athletics has a strong influence in living requirements, outside employment, and social media activity. But this shouldn’t be an issue of student-athlete or employee. This shouldn’t be an issue at all, because money isn’t the end all, be all, and it isn’t what playing college sports is about.

Education and Scholarships

The phrase “student-athlete” describes collegiate-level athletes for a reason. Players are receiving an advanced education at universities and colleges that thousands of Americans can’t attend. Plus, they’re getting it on the dime of the university. Players are being paid to be student-athletes through scholarships that are awarded in correlation with a player’s talent as determined by the coaching staff. In addition to a higher education, players learn values that go beyond the classroom and will be translated in the workforce once out of school.

Money allocation

Most colleges and universities don’t make any money off of athletics, Elon included. According to a 2013 USA TODAY Sports analysis only 23 of 228 athletics departments at NCAA Division I public schools generated enough money on their own to cover their expenses in 2012. Although athletics is an essential part of the culture and attraction to a university, the revenue it brings in usually doesn’t outweigh the costs of running the programs. Parts of that cost are the salaries of people on the athletic staff, who are already severely underpaid. According to the bureau of labor statistics, the average annual wage of an athletic trainer is $44,720, which is less than the cost of tuition for one student at Elon University. The athletic staff, who make it all possible, is the machine that keeps the programs running and the organization afloat, and is who needs to get the money first. If they can’t be paid at a reasonable salary, then where is this money going to come from for the athletes? Most schools simply can’t afford it.

Living the Dream

College athletes need to recognize their opportunity as a privilege, that most young kids aspire to attain, but are never given to opportunity to have. Just do it for the love of the game, because that’s what it is, a game. The last thing athletes want to happen is to turn college sports into a chore or a job with an hourly wage. Then the pure love gets lost. It should never be about how much material value your play is worth.

It’s about fulfilling a childhood dream. And kids aren’t dreaming about what monetary benefits they might get if they play in college while standing in the outfield pounding their mitts, running into a team huddle or doing a victory dance celebrating a touchdown, as they shouldn’t.

It’s about the feeling of pride and the intense, passionate gratification that winning brings. Do it for the competition, the suspense, the strength, the sacrifice, and the glory. Life is about making sacrifices. This is making a sacrifice for teammates who’ve become your family and a school that you represent, the name on the front of the jersey, not the one that’s called out for the starting lineup.

It’s about the grind. The 5 a.m. workouts that take every ounce of will to wake up for, the pain that comes with a hit, and the sweat that drips past an exhausted smile that emerges with the completion of the last level of a daunting fitness test.

It’s about getting to play the game you have an unexplainable obsession with for four more years.  And that is a privilege, not an occupation.