The ruling of the local chapter of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago made national headlines last week. The NLRB made a landmark ruling that Northwestern University athletes will be treated as employees and can collectively bargain with the employer (Northwestern) for benefits regarding the terms of their employment. This opens the door for unionized labor in college athletics at Northwestern, and beyond.
There has been many threads of conversation that have come out of this ruling — a ruling which is certain to be appealed. Some questions raised include: whether players can now be compensated for their athletic abilities or achievements at the college level, whether players are likely to forfeit certain rights in order to collectively bargain as a union, whether college football players should be termed as “student-athletes” instead of employees, and chiefly, what will become of college athletics if the players are treated like professionals instead of amateurs. All are interesting conversations, but for the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on the last topic, which could theoretically affect Texas athletics as well.
Opponents of this ruling maintain that college sports will be irreparably damaged if players are allowed to collectively bargain for benefits. Others will point out that the gap between professional sports and college sports will be shrinking. If you approach this from a financial perspective, opponents of this ruling have a point. If professional sports have taught us anything, it is that bargaining with, and compensating athletes really wrecks the game from a financial perspective.
There is a challenging element here from the school’s perspective, because if colleges do end up providing additional benefits to athletes beyond a scholarship, they will have to alter the financial structure of college sports. In order to have revenue producing sports such as football and basketball, colleges are subsidizing scholarships for Women’s athletics due to meet federal restrictions on scholarships. Some would conclude then that the schools need revenue producing sports like Basketball and Football in order to fund entire athletic budgets.
The problem is that with the current financial structure of college athletics, non-revenue sports are being subsidized by the schools just like any other non-athletic expenses. Scholarship athletes are already receiving compensation, they are just not receiving fair compensation, particularly in the revenue sports.
This issue is seen throughout college athletics, but is by far most interesting in major conference college football, where television contracts are being signed at record levels. The revenue being generated by major college athletics in this system isn’t getting back to the players or schools that generate it. It is staying in the system and getting funneled towards the coaches and administrators that run the system, as well as to create new facilities in order to generate even more revenue through athletics.
Allowing college students to collectively bargain for benefits won’t by itself fix a broken system, but it will assist in making sure that the labor source (i.e. players) that the broken system thrives on cannot be exploited. College athletics as their own entity will not be threatened in any way by this ruling. If anything, the game is going to get healthier. Competitive balance will be largely unaffected by this ruling. Once teams stop getting sanctioned and players stop getting suspended for acts that are perfectly legal according to US law, there will actually be many additional avenues for teams like Northwestern to compete with teams like Texas that have a lot of resources. In the current climate, all you can do is hire the best coach money can by and get the best facilities and try to recruit the best players. Everything else is just circumstance. In a post-amateurism world, you will be able to offer benefits to players who may have previously been inclined to sign elsewhere in order to get to the pros as quickly as possible. Building a strong college football program may actually get easier.
For Texas athletics, it is difficult to see anything but the status quo. Texas is fortunate enough to have two revenue generating sports, it’s own college sports network, and a disproportionately significant amount of dollars from boosters. Despite this, the football program has never lost games to NCAA violations. For the most part, the Longhorns have done things by the books, and with their resources, it will not much matter how much re-writing of the books are done. Texas can absolutely afford to compensate it’s athletes without risking any decline whatsoever in the quality of the product.
I think the NLRB ruling is likely to assist young athletes in their bargaining power, and also indirectly improve the quality of the product on the field over the next thirty years. There will be significant pushback from current administrators, because this ruling is a form of change, and change is bad, and they were hired in part to prevent change. I don’t think this will be a big deal for future administrators, coaches, or athletes. It’s all going to happen fairly naturally, after the period of resistance passes.