One of the most popular arguments you hear against unionization and athletes being better compensated for being collegiate athletes are that they are already being paid. After all, if they play football or basketball they are getting a full scholarship. However, there are examples throughout American history that show this type of payment has not been satisfactory nor is unionization simply about payment.
Very early in the 20th century oil companies exercised monopoly power. The ability for workers to be replaced was so prevalent that many workers simply took what they could get. One of the more popular ways that companies like Standard Oil would pay workers was through Standard Oil's own currency. Standard Oil would house workers in housing created by Standard Oil and the money would only be good at the stores created by Standard Oil.
Why did the workers care so much to unionize and fight for better pay? Because not having a seat at the table sucks, and being compensated poorly, although being compensated, sometimes isn't good enough.
The nation before has already decided that the mere presence of a form of payment isn't good enough. So why is it okay for athletes to be marginalized in terms of their own agency?
It is crazy to see salaries for coaches reach nearly $10 million, athletic directors and coaches to receive bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars by way of team performance, and for nearly everyone to be getting richer, except the athletes.
The new Northwestern QB criticized the way Kain Colter rushed the unionization without contacting the coaches. Quarterback Trevor Siemian states that he's been "treated far better than I deserve" at Northwestern. While I'm glad he's putting the team first and is happy with his compensation, this story is bigger than him.
The union isn't just for more payment. At its core principle the union is about better representing the people who are at the highest risk, the athletes. There are plenty of examples where an athlete was seriously injured and received little to no help from the school.
Maybe I'm just too cynical about the whole process, but let's not act like every school completely cares about the education the athletes are supposedly getting. It is not an accident that many of the best players are shepherded towards the easiest majors at their given school. Also, looking at the terrible graduation rates shows that the schools aren't making sure that athletes are making the most of their scholarship. It isn't just an issue of athletes not caring enough. North Carolina is in hot water for offering a class where essentially everyone was given an A or B for not doing any work or showing up. The schools themselves are going against the mission of the university to make sure that athletes are eligible to play without regard for their education.
You can look at the specific example of Northwestern and say, "Boo hoo, these guys go to Northwestern." But the unionization at Northwestern will enable students at other schools to unionize and fight for their seat to be represented. This issue isn't about getting paid more; it is about what's fair for everyone involved. College sports have grown so fast and so large in the last 30 years and the representation of student-athletes needs to grow with it. There are examples from history where we have said that certain forms of compensation aren't enough.
The coach at Northwestern has discouraged his players from forming a union. This doesn't surprise me because the coach has a lot to lose if unionization is successful at Northwestern. His ability to maintain and increase his salary might be diminished. His ability to potentially rule with an iron fist is at risk. Because in this case creating another seat at the table means that the people who had no power, finally get some.