Should College Football Players Unionize?

Should College Football Players Unionize?
  • Opening Intro -

    Mark it down: the Northwestern University Wildcats are the first college football team to successfully win the right to unionize.

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On March 26, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the Wildcats were employees of the university and thus have the right form a union and bargain collectively.

Union Eligible Players

Although it may take months if not years for the Wildcats to unionize, the decision flies in the face with how college football players are currently treated. That is, they are student-athletes, awarded college scholarships to pay for their education in exchange for spending much time in practice and competing for their school.

Peter Ohr, NLRB Director for Region 13, explained his decision at a news conference. He noted that players are union eligible based on the number of hours they devote to football — up to 50 per week as well as other factors including the coach’s control over scholarships. The latter Ohr interpreted as a contract for compensation.

Ohr also noted that the football players are not primarily students, given the amount of time they practice versus the time spent attending class. And that difference is amplified during the month leading up to the start of the football season as players are required to spend 50 to 60 hours per week at a training camp, scaling back to 40 to 50 hours per week when school is in session and the season is active. Once the season begins, players spend only 20 hours per week attending classes.

Big Sports, Big Money

Billions of dollars flow into university coffers each sport season with football and men’s basketball by far the largest generators of income for participating schools. Beginning this fall, ESPN will be broadcasting the new four-team college playoff system, reportedly paying about $500 million per year for 12 years.

With various contract bowls included (i.e., Rose, Champions and Orange), the ESPN payout rises to $608 million per year or 7.3 billon over 12 years reports the Sports Business Daily. ESPN signed a similarly generous contract for men’s basketball recently too.

With unionization now possible and with other programs considering doing the same, athletic compensation rules may soon be modified. The NCAA is the rule-maker here and pressure to make changes have been mounting. Indeed, the recently formed College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) has been a major force clamoring for change.

On its website the CAPA states, “it’s time to fight for justice. Billions of dollars are flooding NCAA sports, yet players are often stuck with sports-related medical expenses, lose their scholarships due to injuries, and “full” scholarships often aren’t what they are promised to be.”

Other Compensation Issues

The NCAA has been challenged in other areas in recent years including the use of player likenesses in video games and broadcasts without compensation. Injuries are another significant area of concern, especially head injuries, and the way that they are being handled. Concussions are an all too common occurrence in football, an issue that the NFL is grappling with and something that colleges must also address.

The NLRB ruling only extends to private universities. Public university collective bargaining is governed by state law.

See AlsoNCAA Rule Changes for College Football

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