Unionized Football Teams? Welcome to the Future of College Sports

The Northwestern University football team's petition to unionize raises thorny questions—but it's a radical first step in making athletes' voices heard in decisions that affect them.

Tony Jones (6) and Rashad Lawrence (7) celebrate a touchdown during a game against Syracuse University on Sept. 7, 2013. (Matt Marton / AP)

Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) discuss the implications of unionizing college football in the wake of the Northwestern University team's National Labor Relations Board petition.

Simpson: The athletic record of Northwestern University—my alma mater—consists primarily of a 1949 Rose Bowl victory, a dominant women's lacrosse team and a record-long streak of futility in men's basketball. But the news out of Evanston, Illinois, yesterday suggests that the Wildcats may become better known for taking a historic stand off the field: forming a union for college athletes.

Northwestern's football players took the first step toward unionizing on Tuesday, formally petitioning the National Labor Relations Board to be recognized as a union. According to reports, an overwhelming majority of the team's 85 scholarship players voted in favor of unionizing, led by quarterback Kain Colter.

"Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship," Colter said. "No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union."

As obvious as that statement might seem to us (or to anyone not wearing NCAA-tinted glasses), it's the first time a college athlete has said as much while attempting to form a labor organization. The Wildcats received immediate support from the powerful NFL Players Association, which released a statement through its board of player representatives supporting the move to unionize.

The NCAA, the Big Ten, and probably Northwestern itself will come out strongly against the move, and what begins as an NLRB battle will likely end up in federal court. (The NCAA, for its part, has already issued a statement; according to David Remy, the NCAA’s Chief Legal Officer, “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.”) But in an era where the NCAA's rampant hypocrisy and the laughable myth of the "student-athlete" has fallen under increasing scrutiny (thanks in large part to the gargantuan $5.15 billion in annual athletic department revenues from the five so-called power conferences alone), the Northwestern players' step could be the first Jenga piece to come out of the college-athlete amateurism farce.

Hampton, what's your take on this socially significant step taken by the football players at Northwestern?

Stevens: Let's not kid ourselves. Kain Colter's formation of the CAPA won't magically end the student-athlete farce. Trying to organize thousands of college football players will be an exercise in cat-herding. Nevertheless, any success by Colter’s College Athletes Players Assocation could lead to some radical and long-overdue changes in how the courts classify "student athletes." That, in turn, would raise some incredibly complex issues.

It’s important to note that the CAPA’s goal—at the moment, at least—isn't to get pay for players. Colter says he is interested only in a better system to regulate safety in college football, and in protecting the scholarships of athletes who are injured and can no longer play. That's fine, laudable, and seems like common sense. It's a nice start.

But assuming a union is successfully established, the “student-athlete” would legally become an “employee,” and thus would be entitled to the same protections and rights as any other employee in these United States. Foremost among those rights, obviously, is being paid a fair wage.

That new right would open up thorny questions. How, for instance, would those in charge go about splitting the money? Should players at Alabama and Texas get paid more because their programs generate more revenue? Would starters get paid more than benchwarmers, or does everyone on the roster deserve the same rate? Should a player's pay be based on performance year-to-year? After all, if college athletes want the benefits of professionalism, they must also expect the drawbacks—like losing salary because of sub-par performance.

What about basketball players, who similarly produce big bucks for everyone but themselves? Don't they deserve a union, too?  What about sports that don't produce revenue? Surely swimmers and volleyball players should also have their scholarships protected. And let's not even get started on the Title IX implications. The legal requirement for gender equality adds yet another layer of bewildering complexity.

To be truly effective, of course, the union would have to realistically wield the threat of a strike. Imagine it's the night before the national championship game, and a bunch of key players on both teams simply refuse to play. Do those players lose their scholarships? Aren't some second-stringers bound to cross the picket line? And would the TV network that paid big bucks for football sue the NCAA for breach of contract? Who knows, but it sure would be fun to watch it all play out.

Many of these questions are difficult. Some are destined for the courts to decide. But the prospect of unionized college football nevertheless is an encouraging sign and makes for fascinating speculation.

Patrick, like Jake, you were educated at Northwestern. So take an educated guess about what the CAPA could mean for the student-athlete, NCAA, and the college sports landscape.

Hruby: Picture this: It's 1989. You're standing in front of the Berlin Wall. Holding a sledgehammer above your head. Just before you swing, a series of thoughts race through your mind:

How, for instance, do we go about creating a unified currency? Should we combine our flags, keep one, or just create something new? What happens to the local military base economy if the Russians pull out? Who's going to hire all those former Stasi officers? Do I really want the Scorpions collecting additional royalties for "Wind of Change?"

Change always brings new questions. And some of them are admittedly thorny. Still, better to find answers than to stick with a morally bankrupt status quo. Hampton, you're right—the news of a potential college athlete union is incredibly encouraging. Because the whole point of a union—of collective organizing and action, really—is this: The people most affected by thorny questions get a chance to answer them.

Better still, they get a chance to pose them.

What do college athletes really want? Money? Health insurance? Guaranteed scholarships? Better concussion protections? The freedom to sign autographs for a few bucks? Are they happy to play games every night of the week so that schools can make more television money? Would they rather play fewer games on a stricter schedule so they have more time to study, hang out with friends, go home to visit family, or just enjoy college life? Do they not want salaries, because salaries mean more performance pressure?

Nobody knows the answers. Nobody knows because nobody in the current college sports power structure bothers to ask. Nobody has to. The schools are allowed to collude—because amateurism!—and therefore control all of the money while wielding all of the power.

Meanwhile, the athletes have no voice.

Is that fair? Just? Is it what we want college sports—or, for that matter, plain ol' college—to be about? In the documentary film Schooled: The Price of College Sports, Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch national convention of campus athletic directors. He discusses his Atlantic cover story, "The Shame of College Sports," and how amateurism denies college athletes basic rights the rest of us take for granted, including other college students.

Branch's remarks are greeted with silence. Afterward, former Naval Academy athletic director Jack Lengyel approaches.

"The student does not have consent," Lengyel says. "You can't have the animals running the zoo in a college education."

This, of course, is hogwash. The hogwash at the heart of the college sports status quo. Schools are not zoos. Athletes are not animals. A college education should not mean forfeiting your right to negotiate the terms of your employment. The unionization of college athletes—the overdue legal recognition that young men and women who sweat and toil in gyms and on fields for price-fixed scholarships are, in fact, employees, performing labor for compensation, which last I checked is nothing to be ashamed of—would be irrevocably alter the college sports landscape, much like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thorniness would most certainly ensue.

(Speaking of which, here's a quick and novel answer to Hampton's questions: Let a free market figure things out, the same way we do for university employees who aren't athlete-entertainers).

And that thorniness would be good. Healthy, even. Empowered athletes would get to ask and answer those questions, acting as partners instead of serfs.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: Too often, the debate over the college sports economy begins and ends with cold, hard cash. On one side: Schools are making billions of dollars from big-time sports. Why can't Johnny Manziel get a cut, or at least make money off his autograph? On the other: Tuition isn't cheap. Athletes get to play sports they love. Why is anyone complaining? I would kill for that deal! All of this misses the point, a point unionization would finally address. The fundamental problem with amateurism isn't the terms of the deal. It's the terms of the dealing.