College football unions could soon be reality

By   /   April 2, 2014  /   No Comments

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Just imagine the scene in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban orders his players to run sprints after a sweltering August practice, and his team refuses.

He returns home and finds protesters from the team’s union outside his gate, chanting “Heck no, we won’t go.”

Davis Wade Stadium

PENALTY FLAG: College football players could unionize with unknown results. PHOTO BY: Mississippi State

Sounds like a fantasy birthed from the mind of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka?

Not really.

After last week’s farce of a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board that said Northwestern University’s football players can unionize, it’s not so far-fetched. NLRB Regional Director Peter Ohr, in his 24-page ruling, said the players weren’t student-athletes, but employees and therefore were able to form a union. It also would mean their scholarships, if considered payment for services rendered as employees, could be taxable income.

One distinction: Northwestern is a private university with campuses in Chicago and Evanston, Ill. The NLRB has no jurisdiction over state-run colleges or universities as “political subdivisions” of states by law. But state labor boards could approve a union at a state school. The consequences would be foundation-shaking.

If the players can unionize, they can strike. Imagine how much it’d cost a school for a forfeit, like Louisiana’s Grambling State when it forfeited a Southwestern Athletic Conference game in Jackson with Mississippi’s Jackson State University last season.

Imagine the stakes when you bring in TV money. How would a conference commissioner explain to CBS or ESPN  — with television contracts in the billions of dollars — that the Alabama-Mississippi State game is canceled because Alabama players are on the picket line?

How would an athletic director explain to 40,000, 50,000 or even 100,000 enraged fans that Saturday’s rivalry game with Big State U. has been canceled and their pricey tickets will have to be refunded? University towns are dependent on the inflow of money from game-day visitors. It would hit them and local tax revenue right in the kisser.

Players also will be able to collectively bargain for wages, or at least some new benefit to cover miscellaneous expenses not covered by their scholarships. While schools from the power conferences like Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, Southern Cal, Florida State and others will be able to foot the bill with minimal disruption, smaller conference schools won’t be able to keep up and will either have to take a step down to a lower level on the NCAA organizational ladder or fold.

Another loser would be would the “non-revenue” sports like softball, gymnastics and swimming that depend on football money to to survive. If that money supply is cut off, how would universities comply with Title IX to provide corresponding athletic opportunities for women?

If these players are claiming poverty, how would they afford to pay their labor-union dues? And where would these labor-union dues go? If conventional unions are any judge, the money would funnel to political advocacy.

Imagine the implications of college football players, through their union, lobbying state legislators for more benefits. Imagine the implications for recruiting if labor unions were involved.

It’s not to say the players don’t have legitimate grievances. The universities and the nonprofit NCAA make millions off them, their likenesses and their hard work while they don’t see a penny except for their scholarships.

Amateurism in this case is just a convenient excuse to keep the NCAA off the tax rolls and put the athletes under the thumb of a rulebook thicker than the trunk of a thousand-year-old oak tree. Players find it difficult to get part-time jobs because of NCAA regulations involving extra benefits not available to the general student body. They don’t receive any money other than their scholarship, books and room and board, but thanks to the cost of rising tuition, those four benefits are becoming more and more valuable.

What’s lost in this discussion is players are entering into a voluntary association that can be terminated at any time, either by the university or by the player. They chose to play college football, many because it’s a stepping stone to the NFL. It does take up to 50 hours per week, during the season — less in the off season — to play and succeed.

Football is work, no doubt about it. But it’s voluntary work.

Organizing college football into a labor union is not unlike when Enrico Fermi started the world’s first nuclear reactor under the University of Chicago’s abandoned football stadium. He didn’t know what would happen when the reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, went critical. The consequences could be catastrophic. And to think both earth-shaking events began in the Windy City.

Contact Steve Wilson at swilson@watchdog.org
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Steve Wilson is a writer and a journalist. He serves as the Mississippi Bureau Chief for Watchdog.org. Beginning his career as a sports writer, he has worked for the Mobile Press-Register (Ala.), the LaGrange Daily News (Ga.), Highlands Today (Fla.), McComb Enterprise-Journal (Miss.), the Biloxi Sun Herald (Miss.) and the Vicksburg Post (Miss.) His bachelors degree is in journalism with a minor in political science from the University of Alabama. He served four-plus years in the United States Coast Guard after his high school graduation and is a native of Mobile, Ala.

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