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College Football and Unionization ... Don't Panic (yet)

Blaring headlines on mainstream rags like WSJ and NYT has created a tidal wave of meandering prognostications concerning the inevitable demise of college football as we know it. Is it time to panic?

Kain Colter had his day in court, but will it really change things in College Football?
Kain Colter had his day in court, but will it really change things in College Football?
David Banks

Unless you are on a mission trip to a remote savannah in Africa, caught in a space-time rift or illiterate (which, apparently, is a remarkable occurrence on sports fan web sites ... go figure!), then you've heard the news:  College football players have unionized!

Well, ok, not quite.

College football players now have the right to unionize!

Hmmm.  Well, not exactly.  Let's try this again.

College football players are about to unionize!

Three strikes.  You are out.  (Ymmm, baseball.  Since we are on the subject, don't forget to check out Erik's This Week in UW Baseball update).

Confused?  Lucky for all of us, we have our own resident lawyer on the UWDP staff.  Randall broke down the specifics of the decision in this excellent update piece.  In a nutshell, a group of Northwestern football players won a decision from the regional adjudicator of the National Labor Relations Board that effectively said that Northwestern football players fit the definition of "employees" and, therefore, have the right to organize should that be their will.   Unlike Randall, I'm not a lawyer and I won't pretend to be an expert on this matter.  However, as we - the everyday UW football fans - struggle to grapple with the gravity (or lack thereof) of this decision, I did want to take an opportunity to highlight a few of my own observations.

Consider this my two cents contributed to the nascent NCAA union dues pool.

There are three things that I think the average fan has to take into account before they allow themselves to get whipsawed by the abundance of talking heads, administrators, union reps and lawmakers who will inevitably offer their opinions on the matter.

First, this decision is specific to Northwestern.  This is an important point.  The adjudicator was not decreeing a new right that applies to a national constituency.  He was deciding on a specific application over which he has jurisdiction.  Other divisions covering other geographic areas are under no obligation to apply this ruling to their areas nor even consider it as a factor should they be presented with similar appeals.  It should be noted here that while the NCAA has an interest in this case, they have not been defined as an "employer" here.  That designation has been given only to Northwestern University.

Second, this decision only applies to private institutions.  The National Labor Relations Board does not have jurisdiction over public employers which would include public universities.  So, even if this were some kind of national edict, it would still only apply to private universities.  Sure, it would disrupt the likes of Stanford and USC in the Pac 12, but it would still not directly affect players at public universities.

Finally, and not inconsequential here, this is hardly the last word on the subject.  The NLRB has previously encountered university / student issues in the past.  The NCAA likes to cite a case in which the NLRB decided that grad students who were "employed" as teachers and teacher assistants did not meet the employee standard because they were "students first, employees second".  This precedent will be the basis for an appeal that, I'm sure, has already been drafted.  In the event that this appeal is ineffectual, you can expect significant legislative response at both the state and federal levels given how much of a "religious issue" college football is to so many groups of people.

Buckle up, people.  If you thought that College Playoffs took way too long to get figured out, you ain't seen nothing yet.

One thing that everybody can agree upon, no matter what side of the debate you fall, is that things will change.  How drastically and over what time period are significant questions.  But, change, in and of itself, is inevitable.  So, let's talk about that.

As each of us pulls out our sports crystal balls and attempts to prognosticate on what the future may hold, I'd like to offer up a few "truths" that I think will help to set some boundaries around how extreme the possibilities could possibly be.

Truth #1:  College football is a big business...let's not deny that ... but, rightly or wrongly, college football exists within the context of all college athletics and the transcendent notion of sports amatuerism.  It is unlikely that the fact that College football is a cash-generating machine will allow it some sort of special designation such that it can be wholly extracted from the social institutions that govern young people in sports.  In particular, Title IX is a big murky stormcloud that hangs over this entire debate.

Truth #2:  Football teams at public institutions are not under immediate threat of being affected by this issue.  I have yet to see a single credible analysis of this situation that leads to the conclusion that we'll be seeing Alabama, Ohio State, Texas or UW football unionizing in the near future.

Truth #3: Some of you aren't going to like this, but we need to put it out there.  Unlike pro sports where branding is built on the personas of the superstars, the core demand that drives the popularity of college football is the relationship that exists between alums and their alma maters.  I'm not saying that people like our own Ben Knibbe, who didn't go to UW, aren't "core fans".  What I'm saying is that the very base level of interest in UW football is borne from the 15,000 students that graduate from the UW every year and lean on UW athletics as a way to stay connected to the community that generated such rich experiences for them.  College sports fans aren't the same as triple-A baseball fans.  They aren't interested in watching a lesser-quality product than the NFL offers because the players happen to be wearing purple.  They want to be associated with fellow students with whom they share a common bond.  Any disruption to that bond changes demand for the core product that is being debated here..

Truth #4:  Flipping to the other side of the argument, only a fool would fail to see that there is plenty of room to negotiate here - both at the level of the single school and its players as well as with the NCAA and its increasingly antiquated rule books.

There is little doubt that yesterday's ruling sent shockwaves through the college athletics world.  However, I'd caution everybody to not panic ... at least not yet.  The appeals will drag out, legislators will blow hot air and the fishwrap writers will evangelize in whatever way helps them sell more papers or paywall subsciptions.  At the end of it all, I'm predicting that we will get into some serious debates about the time demands placed on student-athletes (no matter what sport), rules that govern stipends and living expense support, and, importantly, what rights they have to their own brands for marketing and promotional purposes.  It is also difficult to see how recruiting rules won't get pulled into the crosshairs.  And good!  These are all important matters that warrant contemporary debate and modernized analyses.

But, if you are contemplating climbing up to the top of the Ballard Bridge and tossing yourself into Salmon Bay, just calm yourself down.  The College football apocalypse is not yet upon us.  Oh, and I doubt that fall would do the trick anyhow.