The sports media descended upon Evanston, Illinois, last month in what some observers were billing as a historic event. Members of the Northwestern University football team gathered at McGaw Hall on campus to cast a ballot pertaining to whether the team would agree to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association. A total of 76 Wildcat players were eligible to have their say on the unionization of the squad.
The rhetoric from groups and individuals who favor unionization of college athletes celebrated the day as a momentous occasion. CAPA president Ramogi Huma said that no matter what happens going forward, “The NCAA cannot vacate this moment in history and its implications for the future.”
However, the celebration of a unionized college football landscape is not only premature; it is unwarranted and baseless. In the future, the men who don football uniforms for NCAA FBS teams will never, ever, ever be carrying union cards.
6. Uncounted Ballots
Even though the Northwestern players voted on April 25, their ballots have not yet been counted – and they won’t be for weeks and months, and perhaps even years. That’s because even though the regional National Labor Relations Board ruled that the players are viewed as employees of the university instead of amateur athletes, that decision has been appealed to the full NLRB in Washington; and there’s no word on when that body will rule. In addition, there’s a strong likelihood that whichever side loses the appeal will attempt to pursue litigation in civil court, which would tie up a final decision for a considerable length of time. In short, odds are that the 2014 Northwestern Wildcats will not know whether they are unionized when they run onto Ryan Field for their August 30th opener against California.
Despite all the speculation about the nation’s first unionized team, there’s still a strong possibility that the Wildcat players voted against the measure. For one thing, current Cat quarterback Trevor Siemian is on record as being against unionization, and a former player and current Northwestern student Michael Odom told ESPN, “It seems like things are kind of leaning toward no.” If that eventually turns out to be the case, the entire pro-union push would be deal a major setback.
5. Anti-Union Rules, Trends
But even if the players did vote yes and the NLRB’s decision eventually gets upheld, there’s still the harsh reality that the ruling only affects private universities. That’s because state schools are governed by state labor laws, meaning that players at just 17 out of the 125 FBS schools would be free to unionize. Taking a closer look at these private institutions, only four of them are located in states where the overall employee unionization rate is above 16% (Northwestern, Stanford, Southern California, and Syracuse). Conversely, four of these 17 are in states with worker unionization rates of under 5% (Duke, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, and Tulane), while four others are located in staunch right-to-work state Texas (Baylor, Rice, SMU, and TCU). So even among the schools who are eligible to house unionized players, the numbers are not conducive to any widespread unionization. Perhaps the most damning evidence against the growth of unions is that nationwide union representation now stands at a record low 11.3% of the workforce – down drastically from the 1955 peak of 35%.
4. Political Interference
Another mitigating factor lies with the actions and proclivities of lawmakers. Washington politicians love to insert themselves into college sports debates because they tend to get free publicity and “common-man” support for their positions. In that vein, the Republican-run House of Representatives’ Education and Workforce Committee will hold a hearing on May 8 entitled “Big Labor on College Campuses: Examining the Consequences of Unionizing Student Athletes” to discuss the NLRB ruling. You can probably predict what some of the hearing’s talking points will be simply based on the title. The point is, the issue of unions and college athletes is ripe for partisan posturing, legislation, and litigation not only in Washington but in individual states as well – all of which will likely retard the unionization process instead of expedite it.
3. NCAA Disinterest
Even if all of the rulings and appeals fall in favor of the CAPA, pro-union types still face a daunting force that has remained constant for decades: the inherent inertia of the NCAA. To wit: it was 31 years between the introduction of the shot clock in the NBA and in men’s college basketball (though NCAA women’s hoops adopted it 15 years before the men did). It was 36 years between the introduction of metal baseball bats in the college game and the implementation of safety measures designed to reduce the dangers of line-drive injuries. And the NCAA had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the “football playoff” era, which begins this season. Conclusion: don’t look for unions in college sports soon, given that the rate of change in NCAA sports is somewhere between “federal government” and “glaciers” on the speed continuum.
2. NCAA Resistance
But in addition to the general inertia that’s endemic in the NCAA, the process will be slowed by the simple fact that the league will not want to make this change at all. Ever. The reason? You guessed it: dinero. Unionization will likely cost more money up front to satisfy player demands. And it also provides a stepping stone to player access to university athletic departments’ cash cows: ticket sales and merchandising. Put another way, the three certainties in life are death, taxes, and the NCAA’s unwillingness to relinquish any part of its revenue streams.
Given this reality, the NCAA has amassed a long and storied history of “slow-walking” reforms. Take Title IX, for instance. The landmark gender-equality decision has been around since the 1970s, but many observers believe the NCAA hasn’t achieved equality between men’s and women’s sports even today. One big reason? In the fine print of the law, it states that schools can remain in compliance with Title IX by “demonstrating a continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex.” In other words, all that NCAA schools must do is show that they are growing women’s sports. Since it takes years for any given sport to be added to a school, institutions are able to drag out this equalization process over a long period of time. You can bet that the NCAA would try to do the same with unionization of athletes.
1. NCAA Circumvention Efforts
Finally, the bulk of the NCAA’s creative efforts toward addressing the unionization problem won’t be allocated toward implementing unions at schools – but instead will be devising ways to circumvent this goal. The most direct way would be for schools members to start tweaking the language in their scholarships. Perhaps high school athletes who sign a letter of intent would have to surrender their claim to merchandising revenues as a condition of their scholarship. Or agree to internal institutional arbitration regarding any questions of unionization. Or perhaps state in black and white that they are not “employees” of the school but are simply “students.” Other than banning unionization outright, it’s hard to demonstrate that these provisions are patently illegal, simply because there is no precedent in this niche of labor law. At the very least, the litigation surrounding these additional clauses would be tied up in court for years – which again plays to the NCAA’s advantage.
To be sure, the Northwestern unionization story grabbed a lot of headlines in the first part of 2014. It also once again thrust the debate about collegiate player compensation into the limelight, and the chances of reforms being enacted in this area have increased somewhat (for instance, the NCAA approved unlimited meals and snacks for athletes last month). But as far as getting college football players to wear the union label en masse, this year’s events will constitute nothing more than a fad – much like non-green football fields, bulldozer quarterbacks, planking fans and players doing Dougie sideline dances.
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