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Opinion | Making sense of the Northwestern player union

What's Going Downey

By Tom Downey
On April 3, 2014

The potential of college football players unionizing is a game-changer, but not in the way many think.

There are plenty of questions about what the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that the Northwestern football players are employees means for college sports and the NCAA. There are misconceptions out there as well. I don't have the answers for everything, and people a lot smarter than me don't have them either, but I'll try my best to answer the questions and misconceptions I've seen out there on the internet.

Are unions now present at every school, including Miami?

No, and I've seen this as a minor misconception. The union ruling only affects private schools like Northwestern. It doesn't affect public schools like Miami, Texas or Alabama. If players want to unionize at public schools, they'll have to go through the state for that. Decisions like that are years down the road, especially since the Northwestern deal will likely have to go through a variety of appeals. Another important point: no one has to unionize right now. It's a choice and the Northwestern players will vote on that shortly

So, does this mean the "student-athlete" term is dead?

Essentially, yes. The term student-athlete was invented by the NCAA so that it could avoid the players being classified as employees, which meant it would have to pay workers' compensation. The NLRB ruled the players are employees, and I'm cutting a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo here, because they provide a service (playing football) and get compensated (scholarship). When you're putting in over 50 hours a week (or more) for football, that's a job and you're an employee.

So is amateurism dead?

Was it even still really alive for football? The big-name players like Johnny Manziel or Jadeveon Clowney aren't amateurs - they're celebrities. 

Is it a money grab by the players to get paid more?

Not at all. Thanks to the NCAA's PR, this has become a major misconception. The NCAA is trying to frame this a pay-for-play set-up. But it's not that at all. The only monetary aspect the players are asking for in their 11 points is for the scholarship to cover the full cost of attending a school. (For those that haven't had the chance to see exactly what those 11 points are, I strongly recommend reading them.) That's something the NCAA has already shown interest in doing. For now, the players aren't getting extra compensation than what the scholarships provide.

But couldn't the union movement become a money grab?

Of course, and it very well might result in players asking for more compensation. In fact, I expect that to eventually be a goal of the union if it becomes as widespread as it could be. But that's not what it is currently about, so don't fall for the NCAA's trap of pay-for-play.

But wait, what about getting compensated for use of likeness and selling merchandise type stuff?

That's a complete different case - that's the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit.

So if it's not about getting paid, then what is it about?

Essentially, this is about the players getting protected, which is what the NCAA is supposed to be about. The players want health coverage, the ability to transfer like their coaches do and to be viewed as the employees they are. Heck, the players are arguing for the academics to be more important by increasing graduation rates and protecting the educational opportunities for athletes in good standing.

OK, so since the players are employees, then can they essentially get fired now?

Yeah, and they already do. Most scholarships are just one-year deals, so they can (and do) get pulled. It's not common, because the PR hit would be awful, but that's not really going to change. In fact, the players are arguing for a four-year scholarship guarantee to help protect themselves.

So the players are just going to get whatever they want now?

No, they'll bargain just like everyone else does. In a perfect situation, the union won't get everything but the universities and the NCAA won't get everything either.

Is this going to get political?

You bet it is. Democratic states and legislatures are going to be much more likely to approve the unions than Republican ones. And you better believe lobbyists for both sides are going to eventually make their way to Washington.

How is this going to affect other sports, like soccer or golf or even scholarships for marching bands?

This is where things start to get murky and there isn't a clear answer. I talked with Tim Butler, a Cincinnati attorney who practices labor and employment law, and he isn't sure where the line will be drawn. I'm certainly not a lawyer, but it would make sense if some sort of line is drawn based on how much revenue is brought in from the sport. After all, smart employers tend to compensate those that bring in more revenue than those that bring in less. Also, I expect men's basketball to be the next sport targeted for unionization.

What about Title IX?

Honestly, I don't know. This basically falls into the previous question. I'd expect people a lot smarter than me to figure out an answer.

Are there tax implications?

It looks like there will be, and Mr. Butler agrees. Since they are employees, their "wages" (scholarships) are subject to taxation. The players are also going to have to pay union dues. That might come as a surprise to the players. However, I suspect there might be a creative way to get around the taxation element. I don't know what it is, but there are people a lot smarter than me that should be able to figure it out.

Is there a worst-case scenario or some type of nuclear outcome?

Yeah and it's not pretty. The worst case scenario is that the union gets too much power, focuses solely on getting more money, the Ed O'Bannon suit cripples the TV income as too much of it goes to the players. As a result, schools like Duke or Vanderbilt or Northwestern go the route of the Ivy League and de-emphasize athletics. Little schools like the Miami or the rest of the MAC are forced to go to D-II or D-III because they don't have the funds. Remember, most schools don't make money off athletics - only a select few do. Those select few end up being the only ones that survive in this worst-case scenario. Schools like USC, Texas, OSU, Alabama and so on are the only ones that make and it becomes a classic rich-get-richer scenario. Essentially, the worst case scenario is college football (or at least the college football we know and love) goes the way of the dinosaurs.  

So will that happen?

I really hope not and I don't think it will. Maybe I'm naïve, but I think the players and schools (at least the smart ones) understand that college football is a good thing. Players get an education, fans get a great product and the universities get some money and great publicity. The NCAA needs reforms - that should be pretty clear. Hopefully, this is the first step toward progress, not the end of college football.

If you have more questions about the player union, let me know via email or on Twitter @whatgoingdowney.


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