College Football Unions? What Does It Mean?

Campus Insiders & CFN
Posted Mar 27, 2014

Relax, the Northwestern NLRB ruling isn't changing things - yet.

Northwestern Unionization?

Really, what does it all mean?

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I don't even pretend to know anything about how the legal process works when it comes to the National Labor Relations Board and its ruling that Northwestern players can unionize, so I asked several people who do. Thankfully, the smart people broke it all down for me. A lot of this (below) is opinion and speculation, but it's all based in some way on what I'm being told.

So here we go. What does it all mean?

Relax. Your college football world isn't going to change.

No, this isn't the end of college football as you know it, and it isn't the end of the "student-athlete" system that we've all grown accustomed to - at least for the forseeable future. All this ruling does is prove that college football players aren't getting their fair share of the pie – or any share – and they deserve to be represented for their own best interests. Even with the ruling, whether or not they really are employees is still open to interpretation, but this was the first time college athletes finally got a positive vote in their favor.

At the end of the day, Kain Colter, on the Northwestern players' behalf, have set the tone as they fight to have more of a voice when it comes to medical issues, concussion concerns and their own best interests. This doesn't mean that there will be an open, above-board bidding war on talent, and this doesn't mean the entire system is going to implode.

Even if everything goes exactly like the players/union side would like, there wouldn't be any massive changes for several years. It's going to take several appeals and lots and lots of fights to get the NCAA & colleges to give an inch.

No. you're not going to see players go on strike – which is actually what they should do an hour before the national championship starts. No, you're not going to see colleges and universities do anything rash after there's a little time rto analyze this, and no, this isn't going to end our beloved sport. The bigger threat to the long-term viability of college football is more likely to come from potential lawsuits surrounding concussions, and, potentially, greedy conferences seceeding from the system.

So what's really going to happen?

Lots of lawyers are going to get really, really rich, and the NCAA and various college and conference administrators are going to be really, really annoyed that this is going to occupy a huge chunk of time and resources. This ruling doesn't mean that all college football teams get to unionize and it doesn't mean that it's a done deal. This was a regional ruling, but it sets the precedent for other battles going forward.

From what I've been told, there were some relatively loose interpretations to come up with this ruling, and if it was a board that wasn't so friendly towards labor, this probably goes the other way. It's not a slam-dunk that others are going to see this the same way going forward.

If this all plays out in the union's favor, the big winner is …

Notre Dame – at least in theory. What Northwestern players did was pave the way for private schools, but to get player unions at public institutions is going to be a whole logistical and legal mess. It could happen, but that's a far more difficult fight. Let's say Notre Dame, for example, embraced the idea of unionized college football players. This could be a massive recruiting tool that Alabama, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State, and other public universities couldn't combat. But that's not going to happen, even though Notre Dame always does what Notre Dame wants.

The other winner could and would be those who'd like to see an end to the hypocrisy. Coaches are getting paid hundreds of thousands on the low end, millions at the top schools. The NCAA is bringing in billions, the schools are making out big, and football and men's basketball - for the most part - pay for entire athletic departments. This ruling is a potential step to change up the inequity.

If this all plays out in the union's favor, the big loser is …

… potentially, any young male who plays a sport that no one cares about. If this all goes like the union side wants, all of a sudden, colleges and universities would have to change around the way they do business. They'll have to keep in mind the Title IX aspect of things, and several women's programs would be safe in order to counterbalance the big-money male sports, but – again, this is all speculation for what could happen down the road – non-revenue sports would take a massive hit. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Of course, the NCAA loses big, because it's just another way it's being exposed. However, as much as the world doesn't like the NCAA, and most right-thinking people understand that college athletes at the highest level deserve more than just a full college ride, people love March Madness. They love college football – remember, this ruling only apples to college football. And that means this could be a very, very easy PR move for the anti-labor side …

Be careful what you wish for.

Let's say the players/unions win out over the course of the process. This won't be all that easy for a variety of reasons.

- Players would then have to deal with union dues and taxes. If the scholarship is viewed as compensation, then players are going to have to pay to play unless they hammer out a proper revenue-sharing deal. Good luck with that because …
- The college players' union will probably get their clocks cleaned. Professional athletes with the heaviest of hitters representing them get ripped to shreds when they have to go up against owners. Yes, pro athletes have it better than ever, but the NFL players broke down in a hurry during their strike a few years ago and gave up the farm in terms of the ability to hold out, guaranteed money, the right to squawk over an extended season, etc. Now a college union is going to try to galvanize a bunch of 17-and-18-year-old recruits just coming into the system? Good luck with that.

- The other side has the potential to make threats that will sound extremely real. It's not like the players have a bunch of time. Assuming a player is smart enough to realize he'll never play in the NFL, if there's a concern that a full-ride scholarship might go away – that's at least 75k a year for Northwestern players – and considering the window to get on the field and live the dream of playing college football is only open for a few years, it's going to take a brilliant effort by the union side to make this all as crystal clear as possible. Meanwhile …

Be careful and watchful for the spit that's about to be slung.

The NCAA didn't keep its deathgrip on college athletics for this long by being a bunch of dopes. Just wait until you get a load of the wickedly brilliant PR/lobbying campaign that's certain to ensue – and it's going to be so easy.

The second any college football fan thinks his Saturday is going to be screwed up, the tables will turn. It's already a delicate issue, considering that receiving scholarships is already seen as proper compensation. Fans are all for players' rights until they're not, and unless this is played extremely delicately by the union side – notice that the talk about compensation almost never comes up; it's always about "having a seat at the table" and "player safety" – this could unravel. Be ready to keep hearing the term student-athlete over and over and over and over again, because that's what the schools believe these players are – they're not employees. Once you get a few congressmen from football-mad states involved, the fight will get ten times harder.

Once Northwestern's jaw is picked up off the floor, then what?

No one ever thought this would happen, and no one thought the ruling would go this way, but if this progresses, and Northwestern becomes the test case, there are a few things the school can do.

1) Fight it. Then it looks like the bad guy against the poor players looking to have a voice.
2) Eliminate the football program. Northwestern is one of the planet's greatest institutions of higher learning – the school would be just fine without football. Of course, this isn't going to happen.
3) Eliminate football scholarships. There are a whole slew of legal issues here, and it would destroy the football program to, effectively, self-impose the most massive of sanctions, but the school could fall on the grenade to save the rest of the schools vulnerable to unionization. Of course, this isn't going to happen.
4) Let the process play out. Take the narrative and support the movement while applauding the effort by the "student-athletes," all the while knowing that it's going to take a Hail Mary for there to be any real change within the next five years.

In the end, what's going to happen and what's the solution?

The overall functionality of college football will stay as-is, but, eventually, the players will generate revenue to be put into a good, solid long-term health care system. Players will get a little bit of a stipend bump, but only enough to ensure that everything works across the board to take care of the Title IX side of things. You're not going to start seeing million-dollar payouts to players, and you're not going to see college football look like an organized NFL minor league.

NCAA and Northwestern, if you want to get out of this, here's your easy solution – and it's mostly what I've been proposing for the last ten years.

- Eliminate the early entry to the pro limitations. No more one-and-done college basketball and no three-year-out-of-high-school rule for the NFL. These rules are coming from the pro leagues, but they can be easily fixed considering the situation. The NBA can improve the developmental league, and the NFL can print some more money and increase the rosters for more practice squad reserves. Players shouldn't have to be in college if they don't want to.

- Let the players have agents and do endorsement deals – all apologies for being a broken record on this. This is so simple, and it would diminish the overall issue and union concern immediately. No way, no how does the superstar prospect with Heisman aspirations sign off to some union if he can make more from a Nike sponsorship.

- Let the players unionize. Let the players have that seat at the table, and let them voice their concerns. They're never going to strike because they'd lose the PR battle and they'd lose it big. Also, if college players strike, colleges and universities go on as normal colleges and universities. If NFL players strike, there's no pro football. If college players strike, they go to class as regular students and life goes on.

Unlike the scab-era in the NFL, fans would embrace the walk-ons who put on the uniforms to, literally, give it the college try. College sports are an entirely different animal than the pros. Professional sports are more about the players, college sports are more about the schools. Huge difference. Player unionization really wouldn't be all that bad, and just because the players might have a bigger voice, that doesn't mean they'll get what they want. 

So, again, relax. What just happened is a good thing, and it's a way overdue, necessary step in the evolution of the sport. Once the ball is kicked off in late August, you're not going to care about the legal fight that will go on for several years.