Wise: Issues arise regarding push for unionization of college athletes

The Northwestern University football team is looking to unionize its players through the National Labor Relations Board. (Courtesy of Creative Commons user Ryan Dickey)

The Northwestern University football team is looking to unionize its players through the National Labor Relations Board. (Courtesy of Creative Commons user Ryan Dickey)

Posted by Justin Wise on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 6:30 pm.

The polarizing topic of college athletes’ compensation took a step toward a legal showdown on Jan. 27 when football players from Northwestern appealed to the National Labor Relations Board and became the first group of college athletes to make efforts toward forming a union.

“College athletes need a labor organization that can give them a seat at the table,” Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, told the New York Times following the announcement.

However, what Huma should have said was that athletes at private schools and athletes who play the most profitable sports — basketball and football — deserve to be considered employees. That’s where the unionization efforts become all the more complicated.

According to the United Steelworkers, if Northwestern football players are deemed employees, the ruling will apply to all football bowl subdivision players at private universities. Nowhere does it say anything in reference to the public schools around the nation.

“If it isn’t a national union covering all student athletes, how do you get a contract where the terms are the same?” Mark Phelps, a senior instructor at the Lundquist College of Business with a background in sports law, said.

Phelps’ point was that the NCAA does not act as an independent regulatory body for college athletics. There is not a collective bargaining agreement like in the NFL, where both parties negotiate and represent one sole agreement. So many other aspects apply.

The University of Oregon for example, is a public school. It would form a union under state labor union laws. Just like the other 50 states, student athletes would have distinct challenges to form an agreement on whether they could unionize as employees.

What is also lost in the turmoil is that of the 50 states in America, 24 of them are “right-to-work” states. Players in these states would face even further limits when trying to create a union, generating competitive advantage issues.

And what about the gender equity between sports deemed profitable and those that are not? That discounts the entire concept of Title IX, considering that the balance would be tipped between the compensation of men versus women.

If the NCAA and its universities pride themselves on a student-athlete experience that is equal for all individuals, how could unionization support everyone involved? Of course, not all sports create a profit like football does, but under Title IX, gender equality is a must at universities.

This issue brings about yet another issue.

“If we go down that path, then what happens to Title IX because that covers students,” Phelps said. “It doesn’t apply to employees. At least clearly it doesn’t have any application to employees in this context.”

What is clear cut could turn into something that plays a role in how the ongoing timeline of events occurs. The stance that Northwestern is making is one that incites pressure, a force that is substantial in considering the view of this system as economically flawed. However, the complexities involved could mean radical disparity that could create even more controversy than when it began.

Follow Justin Wise on Twitter @JWISE25