The madness of March was not limited to the basketball court. On March 26, the Northwestern University men’s football team won the right to unionize.
The question over college football unions has raged for some time. Why, the argument goes, should the NCAA and individual colleges be allowed to profit off of players from licensing and TV deals without compensating the players themselves for that revenue?
This “compensation” refers to additional fiscal compensation, even if many Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) players already receive full scholarships to attend school.
This is not a flash in the pan development in intercollegiate athletics — it is a legitimate, contentious argument over the fundamental nature of athletics and labor that could easily find itself in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
First, let’s review the National Labor Relations Board’s justification. Peter Ohr, the regional director for Chicago, legally deemed the team to be employees, therefore giving them the right to unionize. According to the National Labor Relations Act, an employee is “a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.”
Makes sense. College football players perform services by playing games in exchange for the economic benefit of scholarships and are subject to rules. So yes, they can unionize — but should they want to?
In a Fortune magazine article, Don Schroeder, an employment lawyer, makes a good case for why they should not. If teams were to unionize, Schroeder explains, “Schools will think long and hard about what they do and whether giving scholarships to players makes sense.”
This is an important point that also gets to the crux of the argument against unionization. Players cannot be included in the union if they don’t play games in exchange for economic benefit, whether it is a scholarship or outside compensation. If schools consider whether or not they want to negotiate with a union and decide that they don’t, then the easy answer is to stop giving scholarships altogether. That’s a scary thought.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Say teams begin to unionize and, rather than give scholarships, schools reorient the system and pay players on par with the revenue they generate. Makes sense.
Actually, no it doesn’t. If players are viewed strictly as employees, and their services are viewed strictly as labor, then their compensation will be calculated just as compensation for employees is — by salary. Under this system, we’d see the creation of a quasi-labor market where the best players, who have the potential to generate the most revenue, are paid the most. Which, again, makes sense, until we consider the fact that thousands of college football players attend school on scholarship and generate nearly nothing in revenue themselves. In a labor market, these players are crushed.
So what happens to the players who are good enough to play in the FBS but not good enough to headline games aired on television? These players could lose their scholarships altogether and, in a wage system, would only be paid enough to get them through a fraction of what their scholarships pay for.
Furthermore, Division I football teams don’t operate independently, but as part of larger conferences and the NCAA. Systematic changes like unionization need to go through the proper channels, not attempt to dismantle the system from the outside. Partial unionization could be even scarier. With some players advocating for unionization and some advocating against, conflict is inevitable. We could even see strikes.
Unfortunately, the Northwestern men’s football team’s move to unionize reeks of a “because we can” justification.
In response, the NCAA released a statement saying, “While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.” And they’re correct. They’ve helped literally millions of student-athletes whose names will never be seen on a draft board or TV screen attend college.
College football unions have the potential to completely cut these student-athletes out at the margins in exchange for a moral victory. Football players who want to change how they’re treated need to take issue with their schools, their conferences and the NCAA. Even if we buy the argument that football players ought to be compensated beyond their scholarships, which is a weak one, unionization is not the answer.
I guarantee you’ll still be hearing about this next March. Let’s begin to prepare for all of the madness in between.