Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

29 Jan 2014

Can College Athletes Unionize?

Patrick Hruby on the greater meaning of what Northwestern's football team attempting to unionize means for the future of collegiate sports.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 29 Jan 2014

39 comments, Last at 31 Jan 2014, 10:13pm by PatsFan


by ChrisS :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 2:23pm

I hope so.

by Independent George :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 2:40pm

This is long overdue.

No matter the disdain I feel towards professional sports franchise owners, I can't think of any other organization that exhibits the same level of sanctimony combined with crookedness as the NCAA.

by Will Allen :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 3:00pm

Unfortunately, it's gonna be hard for guys with a maximum 4 or 5 year horizon to effectively organize. If, however, this move, along with some recent court rulings in the pending O'Bannon case, can have the effect of plainly demonstrating how the the NCAA and major conferences grossly violate anti-trust law 36 hours a day, 10 days a week, 400 days a year, then some good may come to this grotesque state of affairs.

by Independent George :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 4:02pm

I can accept people grossly flouting the law in the name of self-interest as a result of greed and general sociopathy. It's the sheer hypocrisy behind the NCAA that really turns my stomach. Well, that and the fact that so many people buy into their BS.

by Will Allen :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 5:27pm

It's remarkable, isn't it? It's like people walking into their grocery store every day, and seeing their neighbor wheel in a hand cart every day, and wheel out the ATM machine, and then put it in his garage, and thinking it's all good, because the neighbor is on the church council.

by drobviousso :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 5:52pm

Its worse than that. You rip off a bank, you are ripping off, generally, highly educated and successful adults with insurance on their ATMs.

You do what the NCAA is doing, and you are ripping off someone who is statistically likely to be at least one of (poor or minority), a minor, tautologically ignorant (in that they haven't either been to college yet or been in the business of selling their talent), and possibly possessing only a single marketable skill.

Pulling up the ladder behind you is much worse than sticking it to the man, as far as I can see.

by Jimmy Oz :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 8:36pm

What does "tautologically ignorant" mean? I've tried to look it up and everything referred to tautologies in language or logic.

by Hummingbird Cyborg :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 11:00pm

He's saying that because they're by definition people looking for a college education, they don't have one. I don't think that means that they're ignorant, though. I'd say that them not having a college education as of yet is less of a factor than the simple fact that college is sold as a way for people to escape poverty and that sports scholarships are one option for people with little other means to fund a university education.

by drobviousso :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 11:56am

Tautologically means by definition or by its nature. A catholic priest is, tautologically, a catholic. A boot is tautologically a shoe.

These young men are, by definition, people who have not been informed or schooled, because the NCAA only allows you to play if you 1) are looking to get into a college program and 2) haven't had the business experience of selling their sports talent for profit.

It doesn't mean stupid, incurious, or unable to learn. But it does mean more vulnerable than an adult that's been through college and has experience in their chosen field.

by Kibbles :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 4:39pm

Hear, hear. I eventually decided to just boycott the entire enterprise. Not because I think the NCAA will notice my absence, but because now I can bitch about them and their discriminatory, predatory, racist, and plainly anti-capitalist practices without feeling like I'm every bit as much of a raging hypocrite as they are.

by ebongreen :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 2:45pm

Go Kain! Go Wildcats!

Four words I never thought I'd ever type.

by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 3:27pm

This can't happen soon enough.

by MarkV :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 7:00pm

This is very interesting. If this were to work, it might really change the recruiting dynamic in favor of the pac12 and big 10, since their states are generally more union friendly than the sec or big 12

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 7:07pm

1. Can they? Yes.
2. Will it matter? We'll see.

by tuluse :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 7:24pm

I would not be so sure about #1. It's not clear that they are employees, and if they were, they could be classified as public employees. Well, they have a better chance at Northwestern than they would at the University of Wisconsin.

by Jimmy Oz :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 8:56pm


The scholarship players get named employees only for the IRS to hit every current and ex-scholarship player for unpaid taxes + interest on their earnings as they've bartered their labours for the cost of their tertiary education.

by tuluse :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 10:12pm

Just to keep the silliness going, the IRS doesn't care about employment. You have to pay taxes on all income earned/gifts received/assets sold. However, education expenses are tax deductible. So when 100% of your income is immediately "spent" as an education expense, no taxes are owed.

by MJK :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 11:53pm

Well, almost, but not quite. I went to school on a scholarship, so I went through the IRS rigmarole. First off, room and board expenses that may be payed by scholarship are NOT tax deductible. Furthermore, neither are several other fees or other expenses that a scholarship may cover. So this puts the scholarship student (if he receives these as part of his scholarship) in the position where he is receiving non-monetary compensation that he has to declare as income, forcing him to either make quarterly payments or get hit with hefty penalties come tax time. Since nothing is with-held, and the student rarely get's a monetary stipend or anything similar for his scholarship, he either has to deplete has savings, hit his parents up, or work a part time job just to pay his taxes.

Secondly, if his parents or others are claiming him as a dependent, it gets even more complicated.

The IRS is very messed up.

by tuluse :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 11:29am

I didn't think about the fact that not all scholarship money is an education expense.

Still, being an employee or not is irrelevant.

by morganja :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 8:39pm

What's right and what will happen are two different things. Of course they are employees. Will a judge do anything to upset the college status quo in which most of the elected officials in the state are part of organizations getting kickbacks? I don't see that happening anytime soon....

by BretU :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 11:13pm

Nope. College football players will not fall under the legal definition of employees. Even if they did, they will not be able to get any concessions because Title 9 means anything offered to male athletes would have to be offered to female athletes. While men's football and basketball can make large profits, but athletic departments rarely result in net revenues to the universities. To be effective the college athletes will need to increase the bargaining unit to all a athletes at the university, which will again result in minimal gains if any because the athletic programs don't have profit to concede to the athletes in negotiations.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 2:13am

Title 9 doesn't cover employees; only educational opportunities.

by BretU :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 9:55am

Title 7 covers employees and will result in the same problem. If you offer it to male bargaining units you have to offer it to female bargaining units.

by tuluse :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 11:28am

Theoretically, this still isn't a problem. Ok, let the women's tennis team unionize. There still isn't any money to give them.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 6:06pm

Or do what LSU did, and split their athletic department out as a separate entity that doesn't receive federal funding.

by morganja :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 3:53pm

Athletes are clearly employees. Any different interpretation is willful obfuscation.
But the strangest comment you make is the idea that athletic programs don't have profit to concede to the athletes in negotiations.
First of all, employee compensation doesn't come from 'profits'. It's an expense that comes out of revenues.
Secondly, the idea that there is no revenue in inter-collegiate sports is farcical.
Third, due to the 'non-profit' nature of universities, if each university received $100 billion this afternoon, they would still show no profits in their book keeping by dinner time.

by Kibbles :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 4:47pm

Exactly. University athletic departments don't turn a profit because they are not-for-profit enterprises, and turning a profit would jeopardize that status. This doesn't mean they don't make a boatload of money, they just make sure they spend it all as quickly as they make it, doing things like paying $8m a year to their coaches and building state-of-the-art workout facilities.

If Alabama is operating right now with no profit, does that mean if they fired Nick Saban and hired someone who cost $5m less a year (ignoring for a moment any buyout clauses), that suddenly they'd be a for-profit institution with a $5m profit on the books? And if so, couldn't they just redirect that $5m to athlete pay and retain their "non-profit" status?

by MJK :: Wed, 01/29/2014 - 11:57pm

Incidentally, an even more sorrily treated group of individuals being screwed by our higher education system tried to unionize a couple of years ago--grad students and post-docs. I don't recall at which university. But their argument was that they were essentially doing a job that required a high degree of training and education that involves very long work hours, and receiving no health benefits (health care, dental, etc.), no 401k or retirement benefits, less than minimum wage, and no long term job security, while agreeing to surrender any intellectual property they might originate to their employer.

I don't remember how that worked out, but I'm pretty sure the universities won.

by Niall Noígíallach :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 1:04am

what you're recalling, I think, is the 2004 NLRB ruling against that Brown grad students etc couldn't form union. it seems only to apply to private universities tho, b/c there are already a couple dozen such unions at public schools (including I believe all the big public universities here in Illinois - I used to know a dude who was involved w/the union at UIC). obviously employees of state and private institutions are viewed differently under the law but I'm not a lawyer so I couldn't tell you exactly how and what that means for their unionization prospects, or those of athletes.

by MarkV :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 12:39pm

some schools are unionized, others are not.

I know graduate students at wisconsin and berkeley are unionized (or were a few years ago).

by xtimmygx :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 7:04pm

Postdocs at the University of California system are unionized. They are part of the UAW. They have actually done quite a bit to get standard pay across the board for all postdocs which used to be a problem.

Before I started as a grad student at Yale there was a push by some to unionize. Ultimately, it got voted down by the grad students because the union people were fairly creepy.

by Alexander :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 11:36am

I dont think a union is the way to break the NCAA. It might be, but in reality it would actually just get the NCAA into an antitrust exemption like most major sports leagues have. They really just need to lose that.

Unions are a mixed bag, but IMO have generally been bad for sports. Marvin Miller is the real hero, and unions have conspired with owners to undue his good work ever since.

by Kibbles :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 4:52pm

I will be glad to see the day when the NCAA folds like a house of cards, regardless of what method winds up getting us there. With that said, I really wish we'd see it taken down in a much more spectacular fashion than something like the football players at Northwestern deciding to unionize. Two days before next year's national championship game, I want to see all of the players on one team hold an event where every single one of them sells their autograph to fans for $.50 a pop. I guaran-damn-tee you the NCAA would rewrite the rulebook overnight rather than cancelling the national championship game and awarding the title via forfeiture.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 6:09pm

It would work better if both teams did it, and the venue would best be the NCAA Men's Basketball Final.

If it were KU versus Kentucky, neither team would have to worry about the long-term effects -- most of their starters are one-and-done.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 9:40am

I'm loving that idea but I'm struggling to imagine (m)any football players who will be willing to sacrifice their season and the shot at a championship for the greater good?

Whereas if every football player did it just before the season began they'd force the issue. In fact they could come up with lots of little schemes and they could slowly up the ante if required. They could sell the stuff to other members of the team who would then just swap it back to them. That way every athlete could participate at no financial loss.

by PatsFan :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 10:13pm

Reminds me of when the NBA union organized.

The night before the All-Star game (which owners actually cared about back then) the players told the owners that if they didn't recognize the union the players wouldn't play the All-Star Game. The owners ultimately agreed.

by morganja :: Thu, 01/30/2014 - 7:38pm

If our Division I Football teams unionize, we will never be able to compete with Chinese Football teams.

by rj1 :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 8:05pm

Sure, as long as they're made employees of the university, cease immediately to be students or at the very least the fiction that they are students stops as does the notion of their scholarships and preferred grading or classes they take, and since they are employees they also pay taxes.

And while we're at it, let's remove the tax exemption all college athletics enjoy.

by rj1 :: Fri, 01/31/2014 - 8:35pm

Anyone that wants college football players paid, this to me is the most realistic solution:

-The college football program is a club independent of the university whose costs are fully covered by boosters, ticket sales, sponsorship, and such, whether university wants to help or not is their choice.

-This club pays a license fee to use the university name (that should be worth huge money, Tuscaloosa Elephants: 14 fans show up, Alabama Crimson Tide: sells out Bryant-Denny).

-This club pays rent to use the university stadium in cases where university owns said stadium.

-This club covers the football players' room and board including school, if the club wants to pay the players money on top of that, they can.

-Said club no longer has tax exemption for generated revenues.

-No more bullcrap with academics since the university receives the same money either way. If the player goes to school and puts in no effort, he flunks out. If the player goes to school and puts in effort, he gets a degree. College football is a taxing outside activity, but the player having to juggle football with school and no outside help makes the football player no different than a guy in the marching band for instance. I play rugby union on my own time for free and have to juggle that with having a job and getting my Master's Degree as well. So can the 20-year-old football player.

-Club personnel costs covered by boosters and such in aforementioned club and they can fire at will. The personnel are no longer university employees.