College athletics as we know it might heading toward a complete makeover.
Wednesday, National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled in favor of former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and other Wildcat football players, who want to unionize under the claim they are in fact employees of the university and not merely students.
Ohr's decision consisted of four parts: determining that Northwestern's football players were not primarily students, their work as football players did not relate to their studies, academic faculty didn't have a part in athletic functions, and that their scholarship were for football not academics.
This decision is monumental for the future of college athletics as we know it, but this is still a long way off from coming to fruition. Northwestern will undoubtedly disagree with the decision and plan to appeal as soon as possible
This will be a long, drawn-out legal battle taking place in a courtroom instead of on the football field. It's possible nothing ever happens, but if it does, there are still plenty of issues to be ironed out.
To clarify today's ruling, you need to know this decision only pertains to Northwestern. However, other athletes could use the precedent to set up unions of their own. Who can set up unions? It's unclear if this ruling applies to all sports or just football. If it is indeed all sports, then athletics will become very pricey for schools. It costs a lot of money to provide employees with benefits like the Northwestern players are asking for. Now, imagine a school suddenly having to provide benefits to a couple hundred more people. That's a lot of green.
If this ruling applies to only football, then we now have a Title IX battle on our hands and who knows how would play out or how long it would take. There's also no telling what the unions would look like after those negotiations.
But the biggest thing to remember out of this ruling is that public schools are not affected by this. Northwestern and other private institutions would be able to form unions and give these benefits to their athletes, but public schools couldn't, due to having to apply by state labor laws. Private schools have no such obligation.
Imagine the recruiting advantage if private schools could offer unions to incoming athletes and public schools could not. Would this totally flip the hierarchy of college athletics on its head? Would we see five-star football players turn down Nick Saban to go play at Northwestern? Would the top players in Oklahoma spurn OU and OSU to play at Tulsa?
This would potentially be a disaster for public schools, particularly those that don't have the football prowess of an Oklahoma or Alabama. Think of what this would do to Kansas. The Jayhawks already don't get the best talent in the conference, but if a mediocre player has an option between losing at Kansas, or losing while part of a union? That's a no-brainer.
Remember, the Northwestern players are not seeking $50,000 salaries. In their arguments, they have stated they are employees based on the fact they receive compensations (scholarships) and are under the direction of managers (coaches). Colter and his cohorts are seeking medical benefits, which could include pensions and retirement, as well as a cost-of-attendance stipend—something the NCAA has already agreed would be a positive thing for all athletes. Also, they're looking for medical help after they leave school to help deal with lingering injuries, much like former NFL players are seeking from the NFL now.
Plenty will say this is a front to allow the players to form the union and then change their motives into asking to be paid like professional athletes. That's a possibility, but I don't think that's the case, especially at a place like Northwestern, where a scholarship is worth close to $50,000 a year to begin with.
The NCAA continues to look completely clueless throughout everything and continues to advocate for its complete sham of amateurism. Here's part of the organization's statement disagreeing with the NLRB ruling.
"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid."
So, according to the NCAA, you can't enjoy sports and be paid or compensated in anyway. If you are, you obviously don't love the game. You have to admire the sound logic presented here.
This issue is still a long way from being decided and unions won't be popping up in college athletics in the near future, or maybe ever. However, it's something to keep an eye on, especially given the magnitude of today's surprising ruling.