For Northwestern Unionization Movement Impacts, Look to FCS, Not FBS

All Players United Protest 2013

By Chuck Burton
Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — There’s been a lot of talk about the historic nature of the bid by Northwestern’s football players to be allowed to form a union for collective bargaining purposes.


The first-ever attempt at a college football players’ union passed the first, and easiest, bar at certification – the National Labor Relations Board in Illinois, or NLRB.  The next step is to present their case in front of the national NLRB board, which is a five-person board currently comprised of three Democrats and two Republicans.


Despite the significant legal challenges that remain before an actual union is formed, popular opinion seems to indicate that many people feel that it is a decision that will transform college sports.


A simple data analysis, however, shows that this is highly unlikely to be the case – at least at the FBS level.



The first thing to understand is that the NLRB only governs private-sector unions, not public ones.


What this means is that the path to a college football union could only potentially apply to the seventeen truly private schools that compete in FBS football. 


Public institutions and “state related” institutions, like the universities of Alabama or Michigan, would instead have to make their own unionization request from their state labor boards, where a separate process could be costly and also have a variety of different chances at success. 


The cadets and future officers at federal public institutions, such as Army, Navy, and Air Force also do not really need to unionize since their tuition is paid by the federal government, and should they graduate and become commissioned officers they become employees of the federal government with their own set of rights and health care.


That leaves 17 schools, out of the 125 that will compete at the FBS level four years from now, that could potentially unionize college football players which are considered employees.


But there is another problem in regards to college football players nationally unionizing en masse – right-to-work laws.


Currently there are 24 states that have right-to-work laws on the books, which, broadly, restricts a union’s ability to forcibly collect dues from its members. 


This means even if, say, Rice University voted on unionization of its college football athletes and managed to convince the Republicans on their state labor board to pass their request, they couldn’t force any of its members to pay dues to the new union.


In states with a Republican governor and Republican representatives on the labor board, unionization is seen as an uphill battle, at best.


Of the seventeen private institutions in FBS, only five – Northwestern (Illinois), Boston College (Massachusetts), Syracuse (New York), Stanford and USC (California) – operate in states that currently don’t have right-to-work laws in place.


This begs the question: Suppose Northwestern unionizes and declares its football players employees.  Then, suppose the other four decide to unionize.  Would that really, as some suggest, cause the NCAA and the rest of the public, federal and private right-to-work institutions to follow suit?


It seems much more likely that the other 120 schools would allow the five to do whatever they see fit rather than actually force themselves to change.




Sadly, however, like many decisions made or not made at the FBS level, allowing only a subset of private insitutions to unionize could have a much, much bigger impact in the world of FCS.


There are many more football programs at the FCS level that are private, and would be subject to a federal trade union and the reclassification of student-athletes that would entail.


A grand total of 49 non-state-related schools at the FCS level are scheduled to compete in 2015. 


And of those institutions, 28 of those compete in states that don’t have right-to-work laws.


If it is judged that these athletes are now employees of the schools, the impact could be devastating.


At the FBS level, there’s at least the promise of making enough money to justify the added expenses that are bound to occur when students are considered employees and collective bargaining is put in place.  Northwestern, after all, gets paid a giant lump sum from the Big Ten Network whether they win, or not, which is a large part of the income of their athletic department.


But at the FCS level, it’s very possible that the increased expenses would be the final straw that could cause some programs to decide having a football program isn’t worth the hassle or expense. 


At the FCS level, there are no conference TV agreements that can be considered an ATM to help subsidize the new classification, especially at non-scholarship programs like San Diego, Dayton, and Marist.


The University of San Diego spent $1.1 million on their non-scholarship football program in the 2012-2013 academic year. None of that money went to scholarships – the football players went through the same need-based aid formula that regular students had to subject themselves to.


But now, say the Toreros are now employees of the school.  That could  force the athletics department to consider their tuition as pay for the athletes’ services – which would cause the football budget, conservatively, to triple.


Even though they’re not receiving “compensation” in the form of scholarships from the athletic department, they could be receiving other scholarships for the privilege of playing football at that school while still being put under the “burden” of working for the school.  I don’t think it’s a giant leap, given the very broad definition of “employee”, to apply these rules to any benefit given to a student.


The Northeast alone has three football conferences, the NEC, Patriot and Ivy League, whose members are all private institutions.  


Classifying their football athletes as employees could add millions of dollars to their athletic expenses, and could very well cause several of its smallest members with historic football programs, like St. Francis (PA) and Georgetown, to determine that sponsoring football is no longer worth the extra expense.


For the eight private members of the Ivy League, who already are mind-numbingly rich and already essentially scholarship a good portion of their student bodies, the “benefit” could be argued to be admittance to the school itself. 


At the FCS level, it is certain that the ability to unionize and consider their athletes employees would not be seen as a compeititve advantage, as it sometimes is at the FBS level.  For FCS football programs, it would be seen as a onerous burden – something that wouldn’t generate a dime more income, and wouldn’t be a huge recruiting advantage with cash-strapped athletics departments.


Too often the actions to benefit or punish a large, rich, athletic department have a boatload of unintended consequences at the FCS level. 


If college football players are considered employees of the institutions, one of those uninended consequences could be the shuttering of multiple FCS football programs – or perhaps entire football conferences.