Last week, the National Labor Relations Board determined the Northwestern University Football team to be employees of the University, and approved their petition to form a union. This seems strange doesn’t it? The players do not get paid a salary, and they are considered by the University to be students first and foremost. In the past few years, there has been a running debate about whether Student-Athletes, who can bring in significant revenue for their school, should be paid for their efforts. This discussion about paying players has not progressed beyond an interesting topic for ESPN to discuss when the college football season comes around. But this decision by the Labor Relations Board seemed to overstep the NCAA, and the universities like Northwestern who have been so adamant that these athletes are not employees.
Obviously, the NCAA and Northwestern University are opposed to players unionizing. It will make it more difficult for universities to deal with players, and will give the players more bargaining power to receive certain benefits that they believe they deserve. The players responsible for starting this unionization process have specified that through unionizing, they hope to receive better medical coverage, better concussion testing, more 4 year scholarships, and the possibility of being paid. These sound like important benefits for the player, and would probably lead to a safer, and better college football experience.
So why would the University be opposed? Northwestern is saying that they want these players to be considered Student-Athletes, who should be at the school primarily for an education, and are participating in athletics as an extra-curricular. But these players make their university millions off of television deals, and ticket sales, while they are expected to risk their health and receive no compensation in return. This appears to be what the Northwestern players are trying to rectify by unionizing. They feel that if they are investing so much time, and putting their body on the line in order for the University to generate revenue, they should receive extra medical, and possible monetary benefits. By unionizing, they acquire a voice in bargaining for certain benefits that would create a better environment for athletes who are currently being exploited for profits. For Northwestern, the unionization represents more time and money involved in maintaining a football team. With a players union, there will be negotiations over medical benefits for the players, discussions over whether they should be paid, possibly more stringent demands on the quality of equipment, regulations of practice time, and probably more. If the decision is not appealed, it could become extremely costly for the university to continue their football program. A past president of northwestern recently brought up the possibility that if the unionization caused maintaining a football team to be too difficult and expensive, he could see Northwestern abandoning the sport.
Could this be a trend in all of college player sports? If this players union at Northwestern leads to better conditions for athletes, I think we could start to see unionization of football teams all over the country. The NLRB determined Northwestern football players to be employees based on the premise that they are being paid in form of scholarships, they are working between 20 and 50 hours per week, and they are generating millions of dollars for the university. All major Division I universities who have large football programs meet these requirements and I don’t see any reason why more programs wouldn’t start to unionize if the benefits were worthwhile. In addition to unions at other universities, unionization could possibly start to spread to basketball programs in order to receive similar benefits. The NCAA of course is appealing this decision, as they still are adamant that Student-Athletes are not employees of the university.
The scary thing for college sports fans is if this unionization does become a trend, we could start to see schools that don’t have high revenue generating athletic programs, start to drop athletics if they become too expensive. I do not believe this is a probable outcome as these programs have been so profitable for universities, and they have often become a part of the universities’ identity. Additionally, if the NCAA’s appeal of the decision is successful, it will essentially end any possibility of more athletic programs attempting to form unions. Nevertheless, this will be an interesting development to keep an eye on in the next couple years to see how this changes college sports.