A fight that’s been anticipated for years has finally come to a head at; the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled college football athletes have the right to form unions. The decision signals trouble, not only for football athletic departments, but for all schools that participate in college sports.
The details of the ruling are long and complex. Essentially, at Northwestern a college football player is to be considered an employee of the school. The decided definition of an “employee” is someone contracted to do work and subject to the employer’s rules in exchange for compensation. Up until now, compensation has been considered a partial or full-ride scholarship, but if declared employees the athletes are due monetary compensation instead of just academic benefits.
Referring to Northwestern, the NLRB cited multiple ways football is valued over academics and how the life of a football player is different from other students. Players are required to participate in offseason workouts that can last over 50 hours a week. During the season, players can spend up to 40 hours during the week and 20 hours on Friday and Saturday focused strictly on football. If the team makes it to a bowl game additional time is required of the athlete, including the possibility of missing classes while traveling.
According to the NLRB, the players’ lives are dictated by the program: where they live, what they eat, their daily schedule, their travel, and what they’re allowed to do outside of the sport, including where and who a player can work, how much they’re paid. A likeness of players can also used and they could be required to do publicity for their school without compensation.
The immediate consequences of the ruling are limited. The National Labor Relations Board is a federal agency split into 32 Regions and this specific ruling only applies to the office in the Chicago area. The NLRB also only represents private colleges and universities such as Duke, Notre Dame and Northwestern, and cannot enforce any policies at state-schools. The vote also doesn’t grant an automatic union to the players, only the right to organize. The players still have to decide if they want to be unionized.
But signs of trouble are looming on the horizon. Behind the effort to unionize is the College Athletes Players Association, a player’s rights organization that seeks to spread unionization to all college programs. Every school may be forced to change their system and it may end up costing a lot of money.
If Northwestern’s unionization movement spreads as expected, schools with have to make a number of uncomfortable choices. At the moment only revenue-producing sports such as football and men’s basketball are being considered but athletes from other sports will likely ask for compensation, arguing they spend a comparable amount of time playing and practicing. If other athletes unionize, schools may have to eliminate non-revenue producing sports in an effort to keep down costs. The amount students are paid has to be considered including overtime rules, health care benefits and endorsements. If no standards are agreed upon, schools may have to offer more money to some players than others to attract top talent. The entire notion of a student-athlete may have to be redefined.
Those in favor of the current system point out these men and women are given partial or completely free-rides to schools that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars, and therefore they are amply compensated for their efforts. But neither can anyone deny schools are collectively making millions and, these days, billions off the efforts of people putting their future health on the line for an audience’s entertainment. The skyrocketing popularity and the money that comes with it appears to have finally changed the calculus of college athletics and the results may not end up in the system’s favor. The Northwestern union decision is a signal- schools that don’t plan ahead will be in trouble.
Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @andyelf