Northwestern Football Players’ Union Is About More Than Money

Many assume Northwestern football players are seeking unionization for a paycheck, but there's far more to this story than that.

Mar 28, 2014 at 10:25AM

There's a case to be made that "student–athlete" is a misnomer. And given the recent news that Northwestern football players can unionize pending an appeal, it's possible that one day, college athletes will be paid to play. But at the moment, the landmark ruling by Chicago's National Labor Relations Board will have a few, more localized consequences.

Student-athletes, or athlete-students?
In the debate of whether Northwestern's football players should be viewed as employees, a main argument in favor concerns time spent on the sport. According to the NLRB's decision, those on the team spend 40 to 60 hours per week on football in training camp and during the season, versus about half that time on schoolwork. This, and the fact that athletes on scholarship must meet behavioral standards and adhere to rules concerning living and employment conditions, support the case for unionization.

So what can the university's football players do with this power? As David Schaper of NPR puts it, they now "have a voice at the table."


Image via Derek Tam, Flickr. 

The specificities of training camp, in-season practice time, off-season workouts (particularly a grueling workout program known as Winning Edge), and holiday travel should be negotiable with coaches. And although a small stipend -- to cover the gap between scholarship value and total attendance costs -- is possible, Northwestern players aren't looking for anything bigger -- and more controversial -- yet, such as annual salaries. 

Don't forget about health care
As you might expect in football, health care also has a role in this case. According to CAPA, the collective bargaining body led by Northwestern's Kain Colter, the players are "faced with the serious risk of concussions and long-term injuries," and "seek to bargain over health and safety issues like other employees protected by the [National Labor Relations Act]."

Like outstanding concussion-related litigation against the NFL, the primary concern is how long players receive medical insurance after they hang up their cleats. From CAPA's petition to the NLRB:

If a player suffers an injury playing football at Northwestern, there is presently no guarantee that Northwestern will cover all the expenses; the university simply chooses how long it will provide such coverage, generally for a year after the player's final season of competition has ended...

Reducing the amount of contact in practice (to lower concussion risk) is also on the negotiating table, as is workers' compensation and long-term disability insurance. 

The future is still cloudy
Many questions remain. What happens if Northwestern wins its appeal to the NLRB in Washington, D.C.? Will Congress or the Supreme Court step in? And because this case only applies to privates like Northwestern, will public university teams try to unionize at a state level? 

Only the future will tell, but to the NCAA, the last question may be the most important. If unionization occurs at public institutions, it could alter the competitive balance present in college football. Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann explains such a scenario:

States' laws vary considerably on whether, and how easily, public employees can unionize. Twenty-four of the 50 states [mostly in the south] are considered "right-to-work" states in that their laws limit opportunities for employees of public unionize...This legal twist means that if college athletes want to be in a union, they need to attend schools where unions not only exist but are possible under the law.

As he explains, public universities in states like Alabama, Georgia, and Texas might not be able to offer players the opportunity to join a union -- a major recruiting disadvantage.

The bottom line
It's no secret college football is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the biggest schools regularly reel in eight figures in annual revenue. Northwestern's program, in particular, generated over $30 million last year, and not including expenses on other sports, it realized a little over $8 million in profits.

From a pure dollars-and-cents standpoint, the university's football team is a business. And according to the NLRB's recent decision, its players are the employees. While you might believe the athletes themselves shouldn't be paid, it's harder to ignore the fact that they deserve to negotiate issues like practice time and health care coverage.

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