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Thursday March 27, 2014

On Wednesday the NLRB ruled that “Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize.” The ruling itself doesn’t end things – it’s fairly narrow in scope (the NLRB doesn’t have jurisdiction over public schools), and there is an appeals process. What it does do is move things from the abstract to the “this could really happen” phase.

How one responds to the news is likely to reflect their outlook on labor unions and also their level of sympathy for the student-athlete (or, I guess, “employee”). Those who distrust unions aren’t going to like them meddling in college sports, and those who consider the Gene Smith bonus obscene are encouraged to see at least some threat to the current system. There is of course overlap between those groups (starting right here).

We’ve only begun to understand the implications of a victory for the Northwestern players. Are there tax consequences for scholarships if they’re considered employees? Would Title IX still apply? Do public schools and schools in right-to-work states gain an advantage or a disadvantage? Are walk-ons who aren’t compensated with a scholarship eligible for union membership? There will be some time to sort through the considerable intended and unintended consequences of this ruling. I’m interested in more of the particulars, but I don’t think most of us follow sports to become experts on labor law. That doesn’t mean that the concerns of the student-athletes aren’t valid or worth our time. So for now I’ll just add some knee-jerk reactions.

  • As we learned when the unionization effort got underway, this isn’t so much about paying players. Many of the points seem reasonable and have to do with player safety, long-term health, education, and mobility. There are a couple we can quibble with, but this isn’t a crude money grab – yet.
  • That said, I wonder how many student-athletes saw yesterday’s news and saw dollar signs. People who reflexively oppose the idea of unionization aren’t the only group who need to read a little deeper.
  • I also doubt that the United Steelworkers are backing this effort without a financial endgame in mind. That could be via a direct cut for their representation (Will there be dues? Where will they go?). The NCAA and its member schools control billions of dollars. With labor facing setbacks in private industry and public coffers drying up, this could be a new frontier. At the very least, organized labor sees an opportunity to improve its image among a nontraditional age group. Involvement with a high-profile and popular activity like college sports could make young people and fans of college sports more receptive to organized labor as they head out into the labor market – that’s the hope, anyway.
  • In other words, who gets paid? It might not be the student-athlete, but it might be enough for some that it won’t only be the schools either.
  • It’s worth noting, as the Red & Black reported, that this issue doesn’t affect Georgia due to state laws that prohibit public employees from forming unions. Georgia players would be more likely to benefit from NCAA reforms brought on by unionization efforts at other schools.
  • Unionization is a clumsy solution. There’s the public/private school split, involvement of disparate state labor laws, and the unnecesary politicization of college sports.
  • We’re forced to deal with this clumsy solution because the schools and NCAA have been slow to prioritize the student-athlete as revenue has exploded. They’re being forced to the table to deal with issues they had plenty of time to consider while the arms race escalated.

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