The ruling earlier this week by a National Labor Relations Board official that Northwestern University football players are employees of the university and have the right to unionize and bargain for salaries is sure to have a huge impact on so-called amateur collegiate sports.
University and NCAA officials, as well as chancellors, athletic directors and coaches across the country are trying to minimize the fallout from the NLRB decision. They point out this ruling applies only to Northwestern, a private school, and would not apply to state universities. Also, they correctly report this ruling is sure to be appealed and say they believe it probably will be overturned.
This is hopeful, not realistic, thinking.
Actually the NLRB ruling is similar to the saying, “the cat is out of the bag,” or perhaps, “the horse is out of the barn.” For years, NCAA and college officials have tried to downplay or suppress the idea that football players are entitled to a salary.
They point out the players receive scholarships that provide a free college education, housing, health care, tutoring and some spending money — far more benefits than the average university student receives. And, they emphasize a high percentage of those athletes probably wouldn’t have a chance to attend a major university and gain the education, contacts and job possibilities they receive if it were not for those scholarships.
This is, indeed, a special and valuable benefit.
However, Northwestern players say that, in light of the millions of dollars players bring to university athletic departments, the multimillion-dollar contracts given to coaches, the revenues and gifts generated for universities by successful sports programs, new stadiums and arenas being built for football and basketball, and the finances needed to support women’s sports, the football players who make this all possible should be paid and able to unionize.
Northwestern football players, with the help of the United Steelworkers Union, say all parties in the athletic scene are making money off the efforts of football players, who get nothing. The players and union officials point out that players must meet many training and practicing requirements throughout the year, their lives are strictly regimented, that academic responsibilities take a back seat to athletic demands, that athletes are under strict, direct control of managers, such as coaches, and that scholarships are the form of compensation.
One facet of the athlete-union argument states, “The record makes clear that the employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high schools.” They added, “no examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend to their studies.”
The NLRB finding said players are told what they can and can’t eat and whether they can live off campus or purchase a car. It claims, at times, players put 50 to 60 hours a week into football.
So what happens if football players, and possibly basketball players, at private universities, as well as public schools such as Kansas University, can form organized labor unions, bargain for salaries and perhaps have a say in selecting coaches and deciding coaches’ salaries?
What will happen to fundraising and alumni and fan support of university teams? How will players’ salaries affect recruiting efforts? Will there be a cap on salaries, perhaps according to specific positions, such as quarterbacks being paid more than linemen? What will be the role of an athletic director? Will he or she merely become a negotiator, dealing with salaries, playing conditions, health care, housing and fringe benefits? Can one university offer higher salaries to attract and recruit so-called “five-star” athletes?
It’s a whole new ball game. Does a state, such as Kansas, with a right-to-work law, present a different climate for the unionization of a football team?
A senior Northwestern official said if the ruling should go into effect after all the appeals, he would recommend Northwestern give up football.
What happens to the so-called “Olympic sports,” including women’s sports? If men on football and, likely, basketball teams can make money for a university and are able to unionize, why can’t women?
Changes, big changes, are coming in college sports, and it would be wrong for anyone at KU or Allen Fieldhouse to believe this change will be limited to Northwestern University or other private schools.
It will affect every aspect of the Jayhawk athletic operation.