In NCAA sports, unions cause more problems than solutions
University of Oregon’s ostentatious Kilkenny basketball floor, which depicts a design resembling a forest of pine trees, symbolizes the wealth of the NCAA’s big-time athletics programs. The extravagance of the facilities, large coaching salaries and the amount of national broadcasting coverage are often discussed in the college sports media. Members of the Northwestern University football team recently won the right to bargain collectively for what they feel is their fair slice of hearty college-athletics pie. Unionization could prove to be a boon to student-athletes on revenue-producing teams, but could also be a problem for NCAA sports that don’t generate revenue.
The Northwestern players are allied with the College Athletes Players Association, a freshly-formed players alliance whose goals include, among others, improved health care and less-demanding practice hours for their associated players. It doesn’t take a business degree to determine that the focus of the unionization movement is the revenue-producing sports of men’s football and basketball. CAPA is advocating for improved health care for athletes including post-collegiate medical support from universities for injuries sustained during their college careers. While the issue of which benefits should be extended to college athletes is worth debating, there are important downsides to the unionization movement that could have negative impacts upon college athletics if they remain unaddressed.
Should widespread unionization occur, athletes would no longer be considered traditional student-athletes in the eye of the university, but instead be classified as university employees. According to the Northwestern case ruling, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board considers athletic scholarships compensation for their services as collegiate athletes. The ruling effectively means that any athlete receiving a scholarship, full or partial, would be eligible to unionize and be considered employees. This would include scholarship athletes on teams that produce little or no revenue and are largely supported by university funds.
Current U.S. labor laws, including Title IX, would mean that universities would have to offer the same benefits across all NCAA sports being played at that university. Unfortunately, it is much more plausible that a university will offer to insure its top men’s basketball athletes for injuries sustained during their college careers than an athlete on the rifle or water polo team. Should a university be put in the situation of operating in this system, it makes the most financial sense to forgo support of low-revenue athletic programs. The majority of these programs would be faced with the elimination of athletic scholarships, and find themselves with a new designation as a club sport.
Additionally, the NLRB ruling opens the door for any scholarship activity (disregarding strictly academic scholarships, as the NLRB does not consider these employee contracts) to potentially become a unionized activity. The possibilities include marching bands and cheerleading squads, to name two. Because those activities require students to participate in certain events at certain times in order to keep scholarships, the ruling could apply to those scenarios as well. Universities are not going to want to have to negotiate labor disputes with non-revenue-producing groups that they could easily demote to a club level.
Should universities choose to fight to maintain their scholarship activities that produce less revenue, they’ll be forced to find room in the budget to do so by imposing fees, tuition hikes or cuts to personnel and their salaries. Universities could certainly redirect expenses, such as University of Alabama’s football head coach Nick Saban’s almost $7 million annual salary, but these universities are going to want to remain competitive in play and recruiting. The potential of losing their head coaches to more lucrative salary contracts may not be viewed as a viable option for large universities competing in the power conferences.
While the unionization of the mainstream athletics teams will enable men’s football and basketball teams to receive the benefits that many believe they deserve, it will have a negative effect upon scholarship athletics programs with low revenues. While the widespread unionization of college athletes is still years away as the NLRB ruling can only be applied to private colleges, it is important to consider how a move in that direction could deny students that participate in less popular scholarship activities an opportunity to obtain an education.
Myles Gallagher is a senior studying anthropology. Follow him @thegetawayMYLES.