College Players Granted Right to Form Union


That is the title of a story in the New York Times written by Ben Strauss and Steve Eder. Best to read more than the headline because there is a long way to go before your favorite college football team is “wearing the union label.”


According to the story, “[a]regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled … that a group of Northwestern football players were employees of the university and have the right to form a union and bargain collectively.”


I was not surprised. Ernie Chambers, a Nebraska state Senator has been saying that for 40 years and, about 15 years ago, I had a conversation with a young woman as to whether she should continue her athletic career at a top-flight college with no athletic scholarship or attend a mid-level one on a full ride. I thought it was unnecessary for her to be employed by a coach at age 18.

Strauss and Eder observe in their story that, “[i]f players do not follow the rules, their scholarships can be revoked.” Personally, I would have focused on the ability of coaches to fire players by revoking their scholarships, but it is not clear from the story that NLRB Regional Director, Ohr, saw it that way.

Can there be any aspect of a relationship between two people that screams employer-employee louder than the ability of one to fire the other?


Here are 20 follow-on questions that are likely to arise before this matter is finally resolved.

  • What is the marginal cost of adding one person to a class of 5000 freshmen? If it is pretty close to zero that reduces the “cost” of the football player to the university.
  • Should each school be free to do its own calculation of the value to them of each sports program and, presumably, play the players accordingly?
  • Would colleges need to be protected from themselves by salary caps, as are professional teams?
  • If the players are not really amateurs, should the colleges benefit from the aura of amateurism that the NCAA tries to bestow?
  • Would a free market set the prices of athletes efficiently?
  • What would college sports look like if they were openly portrayed as minor league sports that served as training camps for the pros?
  • How do you think about the decades of positive press colleges receive from alumni success in the pros?
  • How do the rules apply across a full range of sports from Division III field hockey to top ten football?
  • Is the NCAA a guild that thinks first about itself and second about its guild members?
  • Is the NCAA’s job to protect the guild members’ bottom lines by keeping costs down?
  • If athletes are employees, how will minimum wage laws apply?
  • If the athletes are employees, should the colleges make any pretense of educating them?
  • Will private schools and public schools be treated differently, since state schools are not subject to federal employment laws?
  • What happens to title IX?
  • What would happen to women’s sports if there were no Title IX going forward?
  • In some sports would something akin to club teams be so bad?
  • What happens to college borrowing costs if, as suggested by Moody’s Investors Service, the outcome of the case causes downgrades to their bond ratings?
  • If the case continues to go against the NCAA, will it lobby the Congress for legislation and, if so, who will lobby against them?
  • Would the NCAA have been better off dropping the student-athlete mantra and anticipating this case long ago
  • What does it say about the education provided in the past by colleges like Texas A&M if the mere presence of a highly skilled but poorly behaved quarterback was enough to raise alumni contributions by $300 million (to $740 million) between 2012 and 2013?

No hurry answering these. Several years will elapse as this case moves through the courts and the Congress.