As recruiting season builds up to a fever pitch a week from National Signing Day, current and former Northwestern players dropped a headline-stealing bomb earlier this week. Led by former quarterback Kain Colter, the vast majority of Northwestern's football roster applied for membership as a union to the National Labor Relations Board.
The talented lead writers here at Bleacher Report and most other major blogs and college football websites have hit this story from many angles, but one that doesn't seem to be covered is the most important.
This push to unionize, whether successful or not, will be the first boulder to fall in an avalanche toward FBS college football breaking apart as we know it today.
The Wildcats players probably don't even realize the gravity of what they started this week. As reported by Teddy Greenstein the Chicago Tribune, the Northwestern Union movement is not all about the long-discussed pay-for-play issue. Instead, these players want some or all of the following:
- Provide financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses (including after graduation)
- Establish educational trust fund to help former players graduate
- Make all scholarships guaranteed four-year scholarships
- Make stipends cover full cost of attendance, regardless of school
- More representation for major NCAA decisions
The decision by the NLRB, no matter how it comes out, would affect only private universities like Northwestern. Public or state universities are governed by state law, not federal law and the NLRB.
So even if Northwestern players win this battle, there's still a long way to go before most major college athletic programs see the changes desired. However, the bold move does put the NCAA in the public's view and pushes the organization to answer for why players do not have more benefits or a say at the decision-making table.
And that is exactly what will cause FBS football to break down.
The guaranteed benefits that Northwestern players are asking for are many of the same benefits that the NFL Players Association continues to fight the NFL for (mostly unsuccessfully, as evidenced by the former players with brain damage suing the NFL regularly). Those benefits are expensive, and this piece of the pie will have to be taken away from somewhere.
Athletic department spending on coaching staffs, improved facilities and maintenance on other sports programs (for Title IX purposes and otherwise, both of which are important) is not subsiding anywhere. But don't expect that to happen just because players demand more of a cut in the college football profits.
Instead, this money will have to come from new revenue sources like bigger television contracts, playoff payouts and perhaps even more commercial sponsorships.
You know what that sounds like? It sounds a lot like a professional sports league, and that's the only way college football players will realistically earn all these "job benefits" they seek.
The FBS division currently stretches from big-time leagues with stadiums packing 75,000-plus seats each weekend—while also pulling in millions of television viewers—to small-time leagues with regional schools that draw no national interest and minor television ratings, if any at all.
Most of these smaller schools barely make ends meet in running athletic departments and pull in big subsidies from university funds and student activity fees. Without the television draw, there is simply no way to pay the players more benefits and survive.
But the major programs can survive such an economic burden. In fact, without being tied down by current NCAA regulations and supporting the Toledos and Louisiana-Lafayettes of the world, those programs can run like an NFL "lite." Complete with a full playoff schedule that will bring in millions, if not billions, of dollars.
It just makes sense. Dollars and sense (lots of each).
The five major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12) have already begun making waves by saying that NCAA rules need to be adjusted to fit their teams better. If the players gain enough traction in the court of public opinion or in the legal system (states and NLRB) to earn more benefits, these conferences will pull out the nuclear option.
The major conferences will split Division I football once again, breaking those programs away to form what would become a semi-professional sports league.
It's unclear if such a sport would remain under the purview of the NCAA or something else entirely, as the concept of "student athletes" does not seem to jive with the capitalism required to make this work financially for all parties involved. Regardless, if major college football wants to fully capitalize on being the third most popular sport in America, according to the Harris Poll (via ESPN), the tough decisions will need to be made.
And the players will need to be paid, else the key cogs of the sport revolt.
This process may take years, and perhaps even more than a decade. But when college football historians write about how the BCS died and FBS football broke apart, the brave young men at Northwestern daring to unionize will be looked upon as a first step in the revolution.
College football could be headed for a sea of change. If you thought conference realignment was crazy, wait for the fireworks in this reorganization of the sport.
FBS football is about to change forever. It all started at Northwestern.
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