Players union vote at Northwestern could change more than college football

Football players on scholarship at Northwestern University are voting Friday whether to unionize, which could allow them to negotiate pay and other benefits. It could mean big changes in college athletics.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Northwestern University football players Chris Gradone and Zach Oliver walk to McGaw Hall, where voting is taking place on the student athlete union question April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill.

No matter how the vote goes when Northwestern University football players decide whether to form a labor union, one thing is certain: The rules regulating collegiate sports are in need of reform.

Friday marks a historic milestone for America's student athletes as those players on scholarships at Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., will decide if they want the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) to negotiate on their behalf.

The players say their priorities are to guarantee compensation related to concussion-related injuries for current and former players, to increase athletic scholarships, and to allow players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships, among other things.

It comes as no surprise that Big Labor is cheering such efforts.

“They will be the first group of collegiate athletes – athletes who are the key to the $6 billion-a-year big-time college sports industry – to vote on joining a union,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement this week.

The regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has already approved the vote, ruling that football players at private universities are indeed employees and are therefore eligible for union representation. A decision by the national office of the NLRB in Washington awaits, but a reversal is unlikely, say labor law experts. That would set the course for reform in collegiate sports that many say has been years in the making.

“The system is broken in a number of ways because of the money involved,” says Mark Conrad, director of the sports business concentration at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University in New York. “Part of it is the amount of revenues, which are about as great as big-time sports. Athletes seem to feel left out of that pie and want some additional rights than what they’ve had before. It’s really part of a general crack in the system that has existed for 50 years in its modern form.”

Increased revenues from media rights contracts, branding and merchandise opportunities, and other income streams have made collegiate sports a lucrative industry for top universities.

But the Northwestern situation, along with two separate and pending lawsuits against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) involving current and former student athletes receiving money for the use of their likeness, as well as workers' compensation for injuries on the field, represent a potential sea change in college sports.

“These three cases will change how college athletes are funded and compensated and maybe how [the NCAA] is structured,” says Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for Sports Law at the Villanova University Law School outside Philadelphia and a NFL analyst for ESPN.

E-mails seeking an interview with a representative from CAPA were not returned.

In a prepared statement, Donald Remy, NCAA’s chief legal officer, said, “Whatever concerns or issues one may have with college athletics, turning student-athletes into employees and changing the relationship between students and their universities is certainly not the answer.”

The unionization effort, if successful, will likely force the NCAA to overhaul many of its regulations regarding commercial compensation for athletes, wages, and benefits, and will increase the likelihood of discrimination lawsuits. The $2.4 billion in athletic scholarships the organization says it awards each year may also be in jeopardy, forcing the NCAA and member schools to make cutbacks.

“The ultimate question comes down to the bottom line,” says Mr. Brandt. “If more funding is required for either benefits or paying players more, it has to come from somewhere. And the fear is it will come from nonrevenue sports now being funded by the revenue sports. You’d have to wonder if the money comes from either taking away for those sports or cutting them completely.”

CAPA says such claims are false and the more than $1 billion in new media revenue the NCAA earns from collegiate sports each year is more than enough to cover costs. “Non-revenue sports will still exist because they have a tremendous value to each school,” it states on its website.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., says she is worried that unionization at the Division I level will negatively affect Division III schools like her own, where student athletes are not paid but where the athletic department receives a small percentage of NCAA revenue each year.

“If that system goes away, small liberal arts institutions like ours will have to find a way to subsidize athletics and it may marginalize our most disenfranchised members,” she says.

Ms. Pasquerella also says that if NCAA scholarships at Division I schools are suddenly taxable as a result of the labor ruling, that will create barriers for underprivileged students.

“I worry about the economic segregation at higher institutions that will result from the ruling,” she says.

Both sides indicate that some kind of reform is needed, and the NCAA is moving toward a restructuring it says will be announced in August.

Eldon Ham, a sports attorney and law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, says that even if the Northwestern football players vote to force collective bargaining with the university, the school will be powerless to negotiate on the majority of issues, such as compensation and injury compensation, because those are largely controlled by the NCAA.

“When you really get into it, a football union doesn’t seem sufficient or a productive way to solve the problems of exploitation for these kids,” Mr. Ham says. “I do think the NCAA needs to change, but it almost makes more sense if there was one giant union for all football players of all Division I schools that could negotiate en masse.”

“There is not much they can negotiate with Northwestern except things like the hours they practice,” he says.

Seventy-six players are eligible to vote, but they are not required to do so. Ballots will likely remain secret until the national NLRB makes a final ruling. If the labor board affirms the previous ruling, and the student athletes agree to a union, the case will likely go to federal court. 

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