Unionizing college sports will change everything and nothing at all

Unionizing college sports will change everything and nothing at all

I don't break away from the Bulls often, but I thought this story was interesting enough and important enough to have a discussion. The National Labor Relations Board decided that NCAA football players can be viewed as employees. They accept compensation in form of scholarship, work set hours, wear a uniform, and are under the direction of management.

The full link to the ruling can be read here.

The decision means that the NCAA players are allowed to unionize, a decision which could have very wide reaching implications for college athletics and universities as it opens the door for collective bargaining process and would likely limit the cap on spending on college athletes at scholarship (in other words, college athletes are likely to get paid if this decision is upheld).

First, let's dispel any notion that college basketball players and football players don't deserve to be paid. The NCAA is making billions off of these sports. Top individual coaches have multi-million dollar salaries. In the free market NBA/NFL the top players make way more than the coaches which means it's fairly clear that an elite college football player is worth much more to his school than his scholarship.

Thus the thought that the scholarship fairly compensates the player is bogus even if we ignore the problems with whether or not that scholarship has real value to a player who may not be given time to study, encouraged to take a major which has no long term value, and is the equivalent of me hiring you but forcing you to accept bubble gum as payment instead of cash.

Disregarding the payment issue, the NCAA goes a step further and says, not only can you not take money from us, but we refuse to allow you to take money from anyone else, so we can also steal all the money you'd make on your own name by selling pictures of you, jerseys of you, video game rights with you in them, etc, etc..

Beyond even that, in the case of college football, players can face long term medical problems with no on-going insurance or help from the universities. So besides not paying you fairly, stealing money by using your likeness, you might also develop debilitating concussion symptoms 10-20 years down the road which completely ruins your life.

The system set up clearly isn't fair. What will be interesting is to see how the system would react to a 'fair' model. I could go on for pages about why the NCAA is a horrible deal for players, and I'm sure the counter argument could go on for pages as well.

However, the better question to ask is what happens if this verdict is upheld?

At the very least, this will end amateurism in professional sports, the rules on marketing your own name will go away. If no other change is made, then that's enough to make things radically more fair for the elite players. Think of how much money Tim Tebow would have made at Florida if allowed to do ads?

I think the best thing that happens is for the players who clearly aren't going to make a ton of money as pros (perhaps no money) but are elite college performers. Those guys will now get what they deserve.

My favorite example is when George Mason made it all the way to the final four. Who remembers the players now? They aren't playing pro or capitalizing on their basketball talent, but I bet, if allowed, they could have made a couple hundred grand that week doing ads, money they'll never see again in their lives. Money they could have used to buy houses or jump start the next portion of their lives.

If that was the only change made, that might be just enough for everyone. The worst of the unfairness would slip away, and college sports would likely continue on doing what it's doing. The big name schools wouldn't pay players directly but negotiate ad deals to pay them indirectly which would amount to the same thing.

What happens if colleges pay salaries on top of that? Many will say this will doom college sports. Universities won't just stop playing football/basketball etc. I think not. Not all schools run these programs as massive profit centers now, and in the future that will still be the case. The ones competing at the highest level will also risk losing a lot more money as they'll pay a lot for players.

However, the number of spots to play college football won't go down, nor will the number of kids who want to play it. Yes, the ones who can get money will take it, but the ones who can't will still gladly take a a scholarship. This will result in concentrated talent into a few schools willing to pay, but so what?

Talent is concentrated anyway. It's concentrated to the teams with the best coaches, where the scouts visit the most, where players feel they have the best chance to go pro afterwards, or where they get the best under the table kickbacks. There's a relatively small group of schools competing every year at the highest level with concentrated talent now.

That won't change. The only thing that changes is the reason for concentration and quite frankly, that likely won't even change where the talent concentrates all that much either as the schools who are winning the arms race now will be the ones most willing to pay anyway.

Any fears that colleges will shut down programs are unfounded. What will happen is some schools will compete harder to get the best players and have the best shot to win. The playing field won't be level, but it was never level anyway. We'll just remove the illusion, and the players will get what is fair for them. What a free market would provide. The same opportunity that you and I have every day in our lives with whatever we do.

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    Well written Doug. Could not have made all those points better myself. I'm amazed it has taken so long.

    I think the most important thing to remember is that a lot of "student-athletes" are forced to take majors that will allow them the time to compete. They basically don't have time to take majors that will bear fruit down the line, such as a STEM major. If they do take a STEM major and even get a 3.5 gpa, if they are underperforming on the field, their scholarship will be taken away anyway! It's time to remove the illusion of the "student-athlete" and relabel them for what they are. Employees.

  • I wonder what will happen with other colleges now that this ruling has come out. I think at the very least, players will be able to market themselves and get outside endorsements. It seems ridiculous to me that a player can't sign an autograph or brand himself/herself as he/she likes.

    This may also have unintended consequences for olympic sports as well (in a good way). The first name that comes to my mind is Missy Franklin. She could have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and endorsements, but she gave it all up to go swim in college. Now, she'll likely make that and possibly more in 2016 (she said she's going pro for Rio), but lets say she gets injured next year. Her career is ended and she has no nest egg she could have built herself. I'm sure there are other examples of elite athletes in smaller revenue sports that this could potentially help.

  • You present a reasonable prediction. Using your reasoning, I could see this leading to a superconference for football, with all the schools that would be willing and able to pay the big bucks for the best players. Basketball could be affected with further conference realignment, and a greater disparity in talent between the top schools and the rest, but there are too many good schools here to have one superconference, plus a good basketball team wouldn't cost nearly as much as a great football team.

  • I think that you are being quite naive. Money changes everything and usually for the worse. Exactly like power(which money is the ultimate form of), money corrupts and absolute money(which is what the rich institutions have) corrupts absolutely.

    I won't even get into whether they should or shouldn't get paid, there are valid arguments on both sides. However, to think that nothing will substantially change is not a realistic view of how the world works.
    The most fundamentally transformative property in the history of the world(not Obama by the way) has always been and will always be money. Introduce it into any environment and watch the unexpected consequences explode.

    Things will change radically and unpredictably. Actually, I wonder if Title IX(otherwise known as gender apartheid) will survive. In a paying world will there be any women's sports, or any lesser mens sports for that matter.

  • In reply to BigWay:

    Your post reminds me of one of my favorite movie lines. In the great film "The Pawnbroker" the Rod Steiger character states to his protege:

    "Einstein said the only constant in the universe is the speed of light. Next to that I would put money."

  • There's another angle to this involving Title IX ( I think it is title IX, anyway), which forces schools to have as many women's athletic scholarships as men's. Will this ruling eventually mean that schools will have to spend as much paying women as they do paying men to be athletes representing the school? There is no way that is economically viable. And that is a game changer. That could also turn out to be the functional equivalent of a salary cap for individual schools.

  • Money already is part of the equation. Everyone is making it except the athletes.

  • Good. The athletes can join the adult world and pay income taxes on their scholarships and other paid expenses. If they are employees, those scholarships and paid expenses are salaries.

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    This ruling only applies to private colleges and universities. No since they are employees and their scholarships are considered as part of their wages are they then liable to pay a Federal Income Tax, State and City taxes on the amount of their scholarships; also who pays their union dues. Further some State have right to work laws so some may and some may not wish to join a union. Are only those that choose to join a union to be subject to said taxes as they will be the only ones deemed to be receiving wages. Are private High School athletes going to be allowed to unionize?? Perhaps the better solution would be to totally eliminate all athletic scholarships and admission to higher education institutions be based solely on academic standings and not athletic ability.

  • So many NCAA Division I let alone II, and III athletes will never play professional sports. Even then notable, big time school "stars" only a select number will garner any individual interest or deals involving substantial monies. Those players once paid will live different lives with different treatment then their non star teammates. Greed that ripped apart conferences like the Big East, Pac-12 signing huge mega billion dollar contracts I mean come on? This mega influx of cash isn't going to change agendas from sports and athletics to the pure pursuit of profit and gaining a piece of that huge monetary pie? God knows how many shady turned characters will and are coming out of the woodwork for all this crazy money.

    Huge, huge money would corrupt any of us. If everything is to be run for pure profit, which was once not the case, then let NBA, NCAA basketball, U.S Congress etc. be what the new cliche has proclaimed "it's just a business." Greed has spilled over into all aspects of American life but we have also had some pretty humanitarian somewhat less profit/greed centered eras as well. I just wonder with computers will we ever go back to another era where it just isn't all about the money? Doubt it. Not until great calamity befalls people which is what happens when things become purely centered around greed as it is today. Not to mention a huge growing disparity between the have and have not's which is what illegitimatizes Democracy.

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    Although, this ruling has many questions to overcome, it is a step in the right direction for college athletes because something's got to change for them. There are too many restrictions which leaves the athlete defenseless and he's left to endure public humiliation without proper representation. Shame on an athlete for signing an autograph for money, or except a free meal from his coach.

    On a lighter note...Doug what's your take on the NBA draft prospects? Who would you like to see the Bulls draft with their picks?
    I'd like UCLA's Kyle Anderson aka Slo Mo,and his teammate Zach LaVine, What do you think? I hope to read about it in one of your blogs.

  • Money corrupts?--the NCAA is already corrupted. All these posts act like this is going to cause huge amounnts of money to pour in. IT'S ALREADY THERE-the NCAA has already grabbed all the money that the market can bear. This will simply distribute it differently. I agree with the superconference idea. I've long felt that there should be different levels of conferences with different "salary caps" An open superconference with no limits=no hypocrisy. You won't really need a union-each player will be a free agent able to name his price based on value. Each lower tier will have a strictly enforced salary cap. Unions here would basically be for health and safety/insurance. Each palyer would still negotiate as a free agent based on value. The key is--no more NCAA police force. Simply audited salary caps, Each school could opt to be at whatever level thay prefer. Can you imagine honesty and integrity in college sports?

  • Well this still has to be appealed this was really only the judgement of one person. After that it has to go to the full NLRB.

    If colleges are forced to spend more money on these programs some will drop them. Out of the two hundred or so Division 1A programs only a few make money. So some smaller schools will end up canceling them.

    If these athletes are considered employees then their scholarships can be considered taxable income. So they could be made to pay taxes on their scholarships. If you consider that a scholarship at a top university can cost up to 60,000 a year and these are overwhelming single and young their tax liability will be high. They will also have to pay union dues. And unions will have to be certified to represent them. College athletes have an even higher turnover than the pros. If this ruling does stand. I can't help but thinking that at end this will make the SEC that much stronger as a football conference. Low union support, low cost of tuition, large fan base. Big 10 which is already heading toward 2nd class status will find itself falling further behind the SEC. I do think that college athletes should receive some form of compensation for their efforts. But when you start looking into this it becomes a real problem. Who gets paid, how much . What about non-revenue sports. What about non-scholarship players. This opens up more questions than it answers.

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