National Labor Relations Board to decide fate of Northwestern University football players seeking to unionize

Paul Kersey

Labor law expert, occasional smart-aleck, defender of the free society.

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
February 21, 2014

National Labor Relations Board to decide fate of Northwestern University football players seeking to unionize

Wednesday marked the second day of hearings before the National Labor Relations Board, which will determine whether Northwestern University football players seeking to unionize are employees of the school. When the story of Northwestern football players trying to unionize, with the assistance of the United Steelworkers, broke in late January, it illustrated a huge disconnect...

Wednesday marked the second day of hearings before the National Labor Relations Board, which will determine whether Northwestern University football players seeking to unionize are employees of the school.

When the story of Northwestern football players trying to unionize, with the assistance of the United Steelworkers, broke in late January, it illustrated a huge disconnect between the big business that has grown up around college football and basketball and the treatment of the young men and women who play those sports at the college level. Part of the problem is the hypocrisy that comes when talented young men and women – who may or may not have an interest in higher education – are forced to attend college if they want to play ball professionally.

But is unionizing under the National Labor Relations Act the best answer? Probably not.

One thing that is lost in the chatter is that money is way down on the list of priorities for Wildcat football players. Out of 11 reforms called for by the National College Players Association, which has been deeply involved in the union drive, only one involves payments from colleges to athletes. The NCPA, which is working with the steelworkers, would like athletic scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance, which would include a small stipend – about $3,500, enough to cover “miscellaneous expenses including travel home, clothing, laundry, etc.” Many other scholarship programs include a modest amount for incidental costs. There is some potential for abuse, but because the money would be administered as part of a scholarship, it would likely be equal for all students, making it unattractive as a method for under-the-table payments.

The NCPA would also like to allow athletes more opportunities to earn income off the playing field. This might include promotional work, which would allow more famous athletes to make serious cash. But this would not be paid by the university, so it wouldn’t count as wages or salaries.

The rest of the NCPA’s agenda – and it’s hard to criticize any of it – relates to protection from concussions and other injuries, more freedom to transfer from school to school, and more security for scholarships.

Unions were created to represent employees. An employee’s main compensation comes from his employer, in the form of wages, salaries, and bonuses. The NCPA’s model involves a small stipend meant to cover the cost of attending college, and maybe – maybe – extra income from sponsors away from the campus. That would mean more freedom for student athletes, whose skills and effort are at the heart of the whole thing. But that’s not the basis of an employer-employee relationship between athletes and colleges.

Of course, unions in Illinois have shown that they are willing to organize all sorts of nonemployees, if they think they can derive dues money out of even modest stipends, like those that the state provides to parents who care for disabled children. But just because union officials offer their services, that doesn’t mean young athletes would be wise to accept their aid, and have unions draw mandatory dues from their laundry money.

The NCPA’s leadership seems to understand that much of the appeal of collegiate athletics comes from the fact that most of the athletes are indeed amateurs – the ideal that inspires even players with legitimate pro-potential to put aside their financial ambitions long enough to play for their school and love of “the team, the team, the team.” Take that away, introduce too much “pay for play” and the appeal is lost, collegiate sports starts to look more and more like a glorified minor league system.

But do the steelworkers have the same goals? We have seen the products of the forced unionism model for decades, in both the private sector (the NLRA) and in government (Illinois Labor Law), and to the extent that unionism works it tends to do so on a lowest-common-denominator basis: more money (at least for those with enough seniority to avoid layoffs) and work rules that protect mediocrity. Both are the exact opposite of what amateur athletics are all about.

Northwestern’s football team seems to be shooting for something nobler. If the goal is reforms that preserve college athletics, unionization is a poorly suited tool.

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