College sports has reached a turning point that has the potential to rapidly change what it means to be a student athlete. Legal battles between the NCAA and advocates for the unionization of college athletes have begun, but the outcome is unlikely to affect power-players currently struggling to make their voice heard. Instead, possible repercussions will impact the next class of athletes, still in high school hoping to reach the next level.
Universities had little reason to worry that their teams could legally form a union until a March 26 National Labor Relations Board case decision issued by Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr. The College Athletes Players Association, formed in January 2014 by former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter and other advocates, petitioned against the Northwestern University football program for the right of its players to form a union as employees of the school.
In a surprising decision to the sports world, Ohr found evidence substantial enough to consider football players employed by the university, ruling in favor of the CAPA.
According to the NLRB statement justifying its decision, “While it is true that the players do not receive a paycheck in the traditional sense, they nevertheless receive a substantial economic benefit for playing football.”
The ruling further explained that players are subject to regulations unique from the rest of the student body, that scholarships are awarded and maintained through athletic performance and that practically no connection exists between team obligations and course work.
“While the football coaches, and the Employer as a whole, appear to value the players’ academic education, it is clear that the players are controlled to such a degree that it does impact their academic pursuits to a certain extent,” the ruling stated.
The final piece of the decision was mandating that Northwestern University players hold a secret ballot to determine if a majority favored unionizing. That vote took place Friday, but the results will remain unknown until legal decisions are final.
Northwestern University immediately appealed the decision, and NCAA president Mark Emmert said the ruling will eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unless the NLRB decision is overturned, other private universities’ teams can use the case as a precedent to form their own unions. State schools remain subject to each state’s laws.
While it remains to be seen whether or not unions will become integrated into college sports, the effects could drastically change athletics across the nation’s campuses.
Unions would allow players to collectively negotiate with the NCAA and individual schools. Advocates argue that players do not currently have a way to voice concerns or influence the rules governing college athletics.
According to the goals stated on the CAPA website, primary concerns include “guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players” and “allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships,” among other goals.
Craig White, formerly a wide receiver for the University of Missouri and the Buffalo Bills, has served as Assistant Athletic Director at the University of Georgia and now is the Athletic Director at Millikin University. Like most involved in college athletics administration, he does not see unions as a way to solve any of collegiate sports’ challenges.
“I think most universities will fight [the formation of unions], especially the higher academic universities like Northwestern because there is no intent for them to believe their student athletes are employees,” White said. “I think it sounds good for the unions to come in and talk about all the benefits it can give, but it’s not a panacea.”
White also believes some players are not prepared for union dues and taxes that come with employee status.
“I don’t think they know all the facts of what being unionized means,” White said. “The things they say they can do, a lot of them are already being done.”
The NCAA is not currently involved directly in legal battles, they have stated that unions would be detrimental to the organization of college sports.
“While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college,” the NCAA said in a press release.
The NCAA recently appeased some critics by removing bans on the number of meals programs may provide to athletes, weakening arguments that scholarships alone do not cover all living expenses associated with living on campus, a popular negotiating point of those in favor of unionization.
However, complaints remain of universities’ spending of TV revenues, ignorance of the danger posed by concussions and the lack of organizations to argue against NCAA decisions.
Junior Kyle Ball is one of many potential collegiate athletes across the country who will face the consequences of legal decisions regarding player unionization. He recognizes both the possible benefits and dangers of bringing unions into collegiate athletics.
“It’s a good idea, but I feel like it could get out of control,” Ball said. “Then it could just take away from what makes college athletics so special.”