On Saturday, Michigan football players and their parents protested the Big Ten’s postponement of the fall season. Two days later, on Labor Day, the Graduate Employees’ Organization announced that more than 2,000 graduate student teachers would go on strike in protest of the university’s handling of their safety during the pandemic. Wednesday night, they rejected proposed terms to bring them back to work, opting to continue striking.

Student-athletes should support that strike.

Not just because of the university’s treatment of grad student employees during the pandemic. But because of its treatment of its student-athletes.

College athletes have been trying to prove that they deserve to be paid for years. Many professional athletes, including former NFL running back Arian Foster and a number of University of Louisville basketball alumni, have admitted to taking money from coaches when they were sought-after recruits. In 2014, the football players at Northwestern attempted to unionize, with the end goal being a salary paid to them. At the time, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the Wildcats could not unionize, but it’s unclear whether that ruling applies under current circumstances. Whether college athletes are allowed to unionize is still under intense debate, and likely will be for some time yet. 

A hypothetical players’ union — like the one athletes including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Michigan football’s Hunter Reynolds advocated for this summer, with President Donald Trump’s support — could have some serious negotiating power as far as conference and NCAA decisions are concerned. It could even have a say in how a global pandemic impacts sports seasons.

Whether college athletes will be allowed to unionize will come down to one thing: the classification of their relationship to their schools. For a union to be possible, a ruling would need to define student-athletes as employees of their institutions. And as employees of their institutions, they would be allowed to protest institutional decisions in which they were not involved.

Just as graduate students are doing right now. 

GEO would gladly welcome the support of student athletes, a group of workers who are egregiously exploited by the university,” Amir Fleischmann, the GEO secretary and a PhD candidate in Political Science, said. “Student athletes are put in the impossible position of having to do a full-time job as an athlete while also keeping up with their academic obligations. Despite being a major source of revenue for the university, they receive no real compensation for all the work that they do.”

Let’s be clear: student-athlete support of the grad students’ strike won’t help them win that employed-by-the-institution classification. But it will show support for students employed by the university trying to take a seat at the table. It will further empower those student employees in negotiations. It will support the voice of students in decisions made by governing bodies.

Isn’t that exactly what student-athletes want?

Obviously, the grad students are counted as university employees; the student-athletes are not. But, at the end of the day, student-athletes will need to be considered employees if they want to have any negotiating power about their seasons. And if they do get that employee classification, they’ll rely on the power that other types of student-employees – like these grad students – have wielded in negotiations. 

Now, I’m not coming out as pro- or anti-union here (I haven’t done enough research for that and I have enough homework as it is). But if student-athletes really want the power that student-employees have, then they need to do more than just talk the talk. They need to show support for the strike that’s happening now. They need to walk the walk.

Or, in this case, the picket line.

Note: this article has been updated since its original publication to include new information. Snyder can be reached at ahsnyder@umich.edu or on Twitter at @abbyhsnyder.

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