Making the Case Against a College Football Players' Union

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2014

Northwestern senior running back Venric Mark is against his teammates' hopes of a union.
Northwestern senior running back Venric Mark is against his teammates' hopes of a union.Getty Images

On the surface, it sounded like a good idea.

When the National Labor Relations Board ruled in late March that Northwestern University football players qualified as school employees and could unionize, it sent shock waves through college athletics and the ongoing pay-for-play debate.

Surely, this would be the case which ended college amateurism forever and changed the way that college sports are played, right?

It might be, pending appeal by Northwestern and the NCAA.

But unions aren’t the right way to fix what is broken about college athletics.

There are far too many questions and too many variables to make a college football players’ union a viable option in our current system.

Speaking at a news conference for the Final Four on Sunday, NCAA president Mark Emmert called the idea of unionization “grossly inappropriate” and said it “would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics,” according to USA Today.

That might be going a bit far, but it is crucial to consider what unionization can mean, and how it would work across college athletics.

First, and perhaps most importantly, public schools are not required to conform to the NLRB’s rulings. That means that just within the Big Ten, Northwestern could unionize, while unions could be blocked at places like Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State.

In the Southeastern Conference, Vanderbilt players could conceivably unionize while Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida players, for example, would not.

That could be a huge advantage for private schools like Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Duke and Stanford, whose players could negotiate pay-for-play benefits with their programs. But how does the model work for other programs?

Programs like Alabama and Nick Saban's football program generate massive amounts of revenue for their universities.
Programs like Alabama and Nick Saban's football program generate massive amounts of revenue for their universities.Rusty Costanza

Would, say, Alabama (whose athletic department generated $143 million in 2012-13, according to Antonio Gonzalez of The Associated Press) share some of that revenue with its football players, whose labor fueled the vast majority of that money for the university?

Or would deep-pocketed boosters step into the fray and pay players under the table to ensure the Crimson Tide (and similar programs) stayed competitive in the new marketplace?

Another factor to ponder: While Northwestern players say that payment isn’t the primary concern driving their unionization bid, it is surely a consideration.

Under the current system, Northwestern players receive a scholarship and room and board worth approximately $76,000 per year. All 85 scholarship players are equal, receiving the same benefits for their work.

How would a union system work? Would seniority earn players greater pay? Would starters earn more money than their second-string teammates? Would a freshman starter garner a larger paycheck than a senior backup?

Such disparity could foment discontent among teammates, an unintended consequence of unionization.

And while scholarships are exempt from taxation under IRS rules, paying players would give federal and state governments the opportunity to tax players. Union dues could also be charged.

A union could give players the opportunity to bargain collectively on the group’s behalf, which could improve working conditions. The NLRB reported Northwestern players spent 50-60 hours per week on football in preseason training camp, 40-50 during the regular season and 20-25 in offseason and summer workouts.

During the season, the NCAA limits programs to spending 20 hours per week on football activities, which doesn’t count things like travel or time that players spend in training rooms nursing injuries or studying film and playbooks on their own.

Players could conceivably strike to get more palatable benefits, which is well within their rights. However, programs could also lock them out if they feel the need to do so, as has happened numerous times over the past 30 years in the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB.

Would all players be required to be part of a union on their respective campuses? If a player opts out, what would his teammates’ reaction be?

Northwestern’s team is expected to vote on unionization April 25. The Chicago Tribune reported team leaders like quarterback Trevor Siemian, tailback Venric Mark, center Brandon Vitabile and receiver Kyle Prater all spoke out against the union.

Former Stanford offensive lineman Conor McFadden said unionization isn't necessary.
Former Stanford offensive lineman Conor McFadden said unionization isn't necessary.TONY AVELAR

Recently, former Stanford offensive lineman Conor McFadden (who began as a walk-on before earning a scholarship for his final two seasons) said unionization “is going from the devil you know to the devil you don’t know completely,” he told Bleacher Report.

“I don’t need more money in my pocket,” he said. “With celebrities and pro athletes, money gets them in trouble. That’s why college sports are so valuable. It gives kids an opportunity at an education, which is truly more valuable in the long term. Infinitely more valuable. Football, money, that stuff goes away at the end of the day.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is also firmly against unionization. He told The Charleston Post and Courier following a recent practice:

We've got enough entitlement in this country as it is. To say these guys get nothing totally devalues an education. It just blows my mind people don't even want to quantify an education.

I didn't get into coaching to make money - coaches weren't making any money when I got into coaching. It's what I wanted to do with my life, and I was able to do it because of my education. That's what changed my life. That's what changes everybody's life.

Unionization could change how college athletics are run and how many non-revenue athletes ultimately get the chance to play.

There is no question that football and men’s basketball earn the lion’s share of revenue for athletic departments across the nation. They support non-revenue sports financially.

Dabo Swinney is firmly against pay-for-play and unionization.
Dabo Swinney is firmly against pay-for-play and unionization.Wilfredo Lee

But if football and men’s basketball are unionized, would non-revenue athletes follow suit and then ask for a piece of the pie themselves?

How would a union fit into the structure of Title IX, the landmark ruling that allows an equal opportunity for male and female athletes?

Would programs spread the wealth equally, or would they instead choose to disband non-revenue sports?

It is fair to suggest players receive something more than a scholarship and room and board for their efforts. The idea of paying for players’ cost of attendance (i.e., a supplement to their current stipends for room and board) would be understandable, as would stipends.

But the idea of unionization creates too many difficult questions, which don’t translate well across the spectrum of college athletics. If the Northwestern decision gets players and the NCAA to the bargaining table to hammer out a workable deal which enriches the players’ experience, all the better. But unionization isn’t the way to approach the matter.

Unless noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.

Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace


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