A representative of the National Labor Relations Board ruled yesterday that Northwestern football players are employees of that university, not student-athletes. And they are employees who help the school bring in a large amount of money.
From NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to athletic directors’ offices across the nation, a long series of gulps and forehead slaps likely followed that announcement.
What does this mean to you, the fan? It means that college football as you’ve always known it is one step closer to becoming a pay-for-play enterprise. If that sounds good to you, just mull the possibilities (likelihoods?) over for a few minutes.
While yesterday’s ruling by the regional director of the NLRB’s Chicago office only opens the door for players at private schools to unionize, it won’t take long for attorneys to figure out some way to create something akin to a union at public schools. (The National Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction when it comes to state-run institutions.) And while the NLRB’s Northwestern ruling will be appealed, we’ve already seen that in at least one case — the first test case — at least one decision-maker has sided with the players and their attorney. It’s likely then that there would be others at the NLRB who would agree with that decision. Translation: Attorneys now have a battle plan. And if one person views players as employees, it’s certainly possible that their will be likeminded individuals in the appellate courts or even the Supreme Court when this case winds its way through the justice system.
Attorneys are already feeling emboldened these days. The Ed O’Bannon case has been cleared to go to trial this summer. Another gauntlet was thrown down earlier this month when sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler announced he would sue the NCAA and the major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) on antitrust grounds on behalf of another group of athletes.
That’s one case that’s already been given the initial okey-dokey, another that’s going to trial this summer and another that’s coming down the pike if Kessler is to be believed (and he is).
Eventually, college football players will be paid. The goal of the initial Northwestern move to unionize was to create full-cost-of-tuition scholarships/stipends for players. And while there are other issues at play — research into concussion- and health-related issues, medical insurance, licensing of players’ likenesses, etc — the bottom line is simple: Players want a piece of the pie.
So let’s say we do end up in a world where college football players are allowed to unionize. How long will those athletes be satisfied with full-cost-of-tuition scholarships? Here’s guessing they’ll be just as greedy as the presidents, ADs and conference commissioners have been when it comes to pocketing cash.
How long before college basketball players push for a cut of profits? The smaller the revenue brought in by a sport the less likely something akin to a union will be OK’d. Still, if an attorney believes he can help college basketball players grab some loose change here or there, you can bet he’ll have little trouble finding players to represent.
If players are paid and they are unionized, get ready for strikes and threats of strikes when athletes — or attorneys representing athletes — decide they have some new desire that isn’t being met by the NCAA’s system. Get ready for agent involvement as well. If players are paid, they will need someone to help them with their cash and their taxes. That or get ready to lose a star tailback to IRS issues.
Worst-case scenario? Your favorite college football team could start facing the same problems as your favorite pro football team: stars asking for more money, free agency, hold-outs, etc.
For now, at least, we’re talking about one private school and one ruling that could be appealed for years, all the way up to the Supreme Court. But yesterday’s ruling was a helluva start for college athletes and the lawyers and attorneys hoping to represent them.
So what does this mean for your SEC in the short-term? Commissioner Mike Slive put out a statement yesterday saying, “Notwithstanding today’s decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend.” No surprise there. Representatives of the NCAA and other major conferences have all responded in kind. Yesterday’s ruling was not a welcomed one as it’s literally the opening of Pandora’s box.
As a private institution, Vanderbilt will likely be the first SEC school to face a union challenge, a la Northwestern. Will Commodore football players vote to follow in their Northwestern counterparts’ footsteps? Hard to imagine why they wouldn’t.
Elsewhere, state labor laws will apply. State schools are not covered by the NLRB. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas are all right-to-work states. A college football players union would be a no-go in those states. That does not mean, however, that some attorney won’t be able to coax some players into striking (or threatening to strike) if they see that athletes in other states are making money while they are not.
The power is with the players on this one. If they don’t play, schools lose money. Would a university stand it’s ground and lose revenue or would it rush to reach some sort of agreement with its football players? We’d bet the latter. (The major conferences have already been pushing the NCAA for the right to provide full-cost-of-tuition scholarships in the hopes of fending off such a battle. It’s likely they’ll be granted that power by the end of the year.)
There were two states from the SEC footprint that were not mentioned in the list above; Kentucky and Missouri are not right-to-work states. They could be the first SEC schools — aside from private Vanderbilt — face a union or union-like challenge.
But this is actually a moot point. If one SEC school provides X for its football players — due to a court ruling, a union, or just an internal decision — the rest of the league’s schools will have to follow suit. No SEC school will want to be a non-paying school recruiting against one or more paying schools. So if the Northwestern decision holds up in the long run, you can expect every school — right-to-work states or not, unions or not — to match what the Northwestern administration is eventually forced to pay.
Again, this could all play out over years. It will be appealed repeatedly. But the die has been cast. And the end is nigh for college sports as we know them.
UPDATE — Former Missouri receiver TJ Moe seems to view the prospect of college football unions much as we do.