Northwestern football players won a landmark case this week where they were given the right by the National Labor Relations Board to form as a union. Basically, the NLRB recognized a group of student-athletes as employees of the institution, Northwestern University.
Now, you're going to hear many misleading facts regarding this situation in the coming weeks and months. It's going to be framed as pay-for-play, or you're going to hear about how players are already paid anyway, how they're just being greedy, how it effects Title IX, or my favorite, how young adults shouldn't be allowed to make millions anyway... as if that ever stopped anyone from making American Idol.
For me, this case comes down to two aspects of how NCAA athletes are treated:
1. How do you account for benefits athletes receive today, and;
2. How does this effect the O'Bannon case and any other cases athletes might bring in the future
Let's take question number one first. It's no secret that college athletes already lead a pretty rich college life. They get special facilities, clothing, tutors, academic intermediaries, health and fitness advisers, and people to look over every aspect of their daily college life that most college students never get. It allows schools the ability to bring in kids that typically wouldn't get a college education and pass them through to a level they couldn't attain without their athletic prowess. Does someone really want to attempt to put a dollar figure on what that all amounts to? I don't.
Unfortunately, most college students have to figure out 90% of that life on their own. They have to worry about how to make it to the admissions office on time to make sure their loan checks are signed over to the University correctly. Most students don't get special tutors helping them in subjects they're struggling with to get a passing grade. Most students have to learn how to balance becoming a life professional, while being given academic rigor, without the aid of personal and scholastic assistance.
No one is shedding a tear for what most scholar-athletes are given the day they walk on campus. But what happens to the scholar-athlete when those thing suddenly get thrust into the competitive world of free market economics?
A lot of what athletes receive today is paid for by donor, sponsor, and media related deals. What happens when those deals are put into flux because of collective bargaining relations? One of the deals the NU players asked for was the ability to "directly benefit from commercial opportunities" (#8). What happens when that conflicts with the member institution's deal?
Let me take an example to illustrate my point.
Oregon is an incredibly Nike-centric school. Would Oregon be willing to pass on an athlete because Adidas signed a deal with him before he entered college? Would Johnny Manziel head to Texas A&M, an Adidas school, if Nike had gotten to him in high school? Would Oregon want Mariota if he was sponsored by Under Armor?
What happens to Oregon's Nike deal if Mark Helfrich brings in a kid that isn't sponsored by Nike? Do I need to remind you of what happened when the University sided with the World Trade Organization regarding Nike's treatment of international workers? And none of them are cult heroes that possibly led the Ducks to a National Championship.
There are many facets to the deals already set up between school and sponsor/donor/media group that would have to change when collective bargaining and free market choice gets thrust into the equation.
Now I'm not here to tell you this is right or wrong. Personally, I think NCAA athletes have been getting the short end of the stick for way too long. What I'm asking is, are fans willing to accept the collateral damage that occurs when a labor force rises up and attempts to tell its overlords they're not willing to take it any longer? It's happened in the past and I will say the outcome has pretty much always been great, but there are definitely sacrifices the participants and the bystanders have to make to finally get there.
As for question number two, I hope the athletes didn't shoot their wad too early.
The O'Bannon case looks to be a coming landslide victory for anyone, past and present, that has been taken advantage of by the NCAA cartel. There have been many cases brought against the NCAA in the past that have tailed off or disappeared because of lack of funding, plaintiveness of case, or attrition through time.
I hope the unionization of student-athletes doesn't cause the NCAA to act and settle in a way that could somehow undermine that effort. O'Bannon's case needs to be heard and seen through to completion. That is what will truly mark the day that the Cartel is faced with compensating those it has disenfranchised for too long.
We're standing on the precipice of the future of college athletics. In the long run that is a good thing, I'm sure of it. Unfortunately we have to deal with the sloppiness of how long term equilibrium deals with short term chaos. The consequences of the O'Bannon case, the reconfiguring of sponsor and media deals with regard to college athletes all hang in the balance now.
How is it going to turn out?