College Sports and Unionization

My initial reaction to the ruling by the National Labor Relations Board ruling was that it was the beginning of a brand new day, and a welcome change.  Then I had a good discussion with a few different people about the issue, and some serious questions were asked in regards to what the future would hold on college campuses should this ruling hold up and lead to real unionization of college athletes.  Some of them were:

  • Would a traditional union environment eventually manifest itself on campus with a shop steward and onsite union reps to limit how much time a coach can demand of players for practice and workout time?
  • Will players be able to file grievances and unfair labor practice charges against the coaching staff or the athletic director?

Both of these could fundamentally alter the relationship between players and coaches, especially if limits are erected to how much contact a coach can have with players.  A world where players can file grievances and unfair labor practice charges can become a big mess for where every move a coach from scheduling to making out a depth chart will be done under the threat of litigation.

  •  What about schools below Division 1 and non revenue sports?

If some kind of monetary compensation beyond scholarships become a reality, that would undoubtedly put a major squeeze on smaller/less lucrative D-1 programs and lower divisions, because the money really isn’t there.  Football is especially expensive, and half the programs at the D-1 level don’t make a profit.  Right now, the main ask from the group that went to the NLRB was for better medical coverage.  Without looking at any particular department’s books, that seems to be a reasonable request.  Full blown salaries seem to be a bridge too far.  Schools that can afford it could stash players on campus using a good salary to offset having to sit on the bench or play reduced minutes because the team is more stacked than it used to be.

These are just a few of many questions that will come to light as this process goes on.  After hearing these points, has my stance changed at all?  Yes, it has.  I see the threat of unionization as something that will undoubtedly disrupt the college athletic structure, in some ways that are detrimental.  However, I still support the athletes going this route and I blame the schools for allowing it to get this far.  Full medical coverage and some easing up on the game scheduling would have gone a long way towards alleviating the bad feelings a lot of athletes have towards the system.  Some reform on the educational side so that students have a better shot at getting a real education would help as well.  All of that could have done without anyone having to resort to any kind of litigation, but the schools chose to continue to operate from the stance that players should be grateful to get a scholarship and some other perks.  But in an era where a quick Google search can bring you all the information you need on much money is being generated how much coaches are getting paid, the idea that you’re going to get away with patting players on the head and telling them to move along because there’s nothing to see here is extremely short-sighted.