Will College Athletes Soon Be Unionized?

Did you feel that?

It was just a tremor, something so insignificant that it likely escaped your attention altogether. But that miniscule movement promises to grow ever more strong and powerful in the months and years to come - until it becomes a massive quake that completely dislodges and upends the current landscape of collegiate sports.

We're talking about a modification in the basic way that student athletes are being perceived in the sports universe: from grateful scholarship recipients to revenue-generating employees. And that tectonic shift started with a single event that transpired last month.


3 The Ruling Heard 'Round the College Sports World

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Back on March 26th, the National Labor Relations Board's Chicago district ruled that football players at Northwestern University are indeed employees of the school - and therefore have the right to form a labor union. Peter Sung Ohr, regional director for the NLRB, stated that players' scholarships were directly linked to the time they put in on the practice and playing fields, and that the players fit the "common law definition of 'employee.'"

The NLRB ruling clears the way for Wildcat players to hold a vote to form a union that would be represented by the College Athletes Players Association. Kain Colter, the former NU quarterback who helped spearhead the effort, said that he believes most of the 85 current scholarship members of the team would vote in favor of unionization.

But the university announced immediately after the ruling that the decision would be appealed to the full NLRB in Washington. Northwestern believes that the scholarships are grants, not employee pay; and its position is supported by the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference. Presumably, the United Steelworkers Union, which has been paying the legal bills for the CAPA effort, will continue to fund the appeal. Even after the full NLRB makes its ruling, the issue could be appealed to the federal court system - and perhaps eventually wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

2 Events Which Led to the Landmark Ruling

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This legal action began with a so-called online "rant" delivered by Colter, which was the basis for a two-page letter that he sent to the National College Players Association. He was concerned about the vulnerability of scholarship college athletes, both to injury that isn't covered by full medical coverage as well as the sudden withdrawal of their scholarships and their subsequent failure to complete their education. So Colter, helped from the CAPA as an advocacy group for players' rights, highlighted issues such as procedures to reduce head injuries, opportunities for athletes to share in the revenue from commercial sponsorships, and the provision to current and former football players of guaranteed insurance coverage for sports-related health care costs.

This certainly isn't the first time that someone has questioned whether or not college athletes are getting a fair shake financially. For years, there have been stories about how many players who come from poor families have to scrape to find funds for meals, housing, or additional classroom materials and supplies.

In addition, there are some other lawsuits currently making their way through the courts regarding college athlete compensation. A few are seeking monetary damages for the NCAA's alleged failure to protect players from head injuries, and the league is also embroiled in a class-action lawsuit filed by former players who want compensation from the huge pot of money received by the NCAA from live TV and radio broadcasts, video games, and sales of memorabilia.

It's important to note some of the limitations of this current case involving potential player unionization. For one thing, the CAPA's current thrust is aimed only at private universities. That's because the NLRB does not have any jurisdiction to regulate state and other public universities at this time. Moreover, the basic premise of the case focuses on how athletes are not paid for their time, even though they still generate millions of dollars in revenue for their universities. This idea is less applicable to college sports other than football and mens' basketball, which usually cost more money than they earn for their schools.

1 What Will the Future Hold for College Sports?

That said, the NLRB ruling is still likely to have a major impact on collegiate athletics in general, even though no one seems to know exactly what that impact will look like.

After all, the notion of unionized college athletes tends to beget more questions than answers. For instance:

  • What does this mean for states with "right to work" laws? Almost half the states have these laws, which prohibit union membership and dues-collection as a condition of employment. Would the presence of these laws affect how a players' union might form in any of these states - or possibly prohibit such unionization from happening altogether?
  • What does this mean for non-scholarship players? So-called "walk-ons" - those players who join the team but don't have an athletic scholarship - technically don't fall under this current ruling because they don't receive any "pay" in the form of a scholarship. Does this mean that unionized players would be treated differently than walk-ons at colleges and universities?
  • What about taxes? If the players' scholarships are considered compensation and not grants, wouldn't the Internal Revenue Service be entitled to take a cut? Every other American pays federal and (with a few exceptions) state taxes - so would these college athletes have to do the same? (Northwestern scholarships are worth about $76,000 each year - which would put these players in the 25% federal tax bracket and force them to pay an additional 5% to the state of Illinois.)
  • What about workers' compensation? This system is in place to help anyone who has been injured while on the job to receive reimbursement for medical expenses. Would this system have to be adapted to college athletes - who undoubtedly get hurt more frequently than the average U.S. worker? And how would all this interact with the current system of athletic trainers and doctors?
  • Could we someday see strikes, lockouts, or boycotts? Where there are unions, there tend to be at least the threat of these types of work stoppages. If the collective bargaining process breaks down, would America be subjected to players refusing to suit up for games because they don't like practice conditions, class schedules, or off-season requirements? Would the universities than be forced to use scabs walk-ons to fill roster spots? How would this impact schedules, especially with regard to schools who aren't on strike?

The most certain statement that can be made about this development is that the U.S. will never view college athletics in quite the same light as before. Whether the unionization efforts are ultimately successful, or the schools approve other measures to address athletes' issues (like stipends, guaranteed scholarships, or more comprehensive medical care); it's nearly impossible to go back to the way of thinking prior to this ruling. In other words, players are no longer considered to be "student athletes" who participate in a game in exchange for free tuition, but rather "revenue earning" representatives of their universities who may be entitled to a bigger slice of the money pie.

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