Four Questions about Northwestern Football Union Decision

As you’ve heard, there was a regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision that approved the organization of a union at Northwestern University, specifically for their football team. Although this could rescue struggling national unions from declining membership and revenue (via Biz Journals), this issue is far from settled.

BCS Championship Oklahoma Football

The pay-for-play question has been bouncing around for years in college football, with comments from Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bob Stoops and others saying they’re not really for paying their players. Stoops said, back in April 2013 (via CollegeFootballTalk):

“I tell my guys all the time,” Stoops says, “you’re not the first one to spend a hungry Sunday without any money.”

He went on to say that the student-athletes should be grateful for getting a free ride in college regarding tuition, room and board:

“You know what school would cost here for non-state guy? Over $200,000 for room, board and everything else,” Stoops said. “That’s a lot of money. Ask the kids who have to pay it back over 10-15 years with student loans. You get room and board, and we’ll give you the best nutritionist, the best strength coach to develop you, the best tutors to help you academically, and coaches to teach you and help you develop. How much do you think it would cost to hire a personal trainer and tutor for 4-5 years?

“I don’t get why people say these guys don’t get paid. It’s simple, they are paid quite often, quite a bit and quite handsomely.”

I agree with Stoops that players should be grateful for their scholarship. But, these college athletes are employees because they have a rigid schedule and receive benefits.

terrelle pryor

However, there is the issue of other expenses not covered by an athletic scholarship. Terrelle Pryor and other Ohio State football players exchanged their jerseys and got tattoos for cash, and Pryor and his other teammates got suspended 5 games because of it. What did he use it for? Paying his mother’s utility bills. Athletes typically get around $1,100 per month as a stipend, as one former Wisconsin player O’Brien Schofield told Yahoo’s The Post Game Blog back in July 2013.

There are talks to increase that stipend to about $2,000 (as reported) to help athletes, but the Northwestern football players want a union for health benefits across the board. I agree they need health care coverage because of the risk of significant injury. It is optional for the school to cover it, but not required. However, there are some large concerns about this union formation:

1. Will only be football and basketball players?

If two sports, which are the moneymakers of the NCAA, have unions and get these medical benefits, then what happens to the other non-revenue sports? Baseball, gymnastics, track and field, water polo…would those be covered by medical coverage?

2. Will the unions exclude non-revenue sports athletes?

And, if these student-athletes are excluded, will they get equal stipend or pay as the major revenue sports? If they don’t, I feel that would be a great disservice because they are all student-athletes and if they’re in a union, they should be treated equally. After all, isn’t that what a union strives for? Having known swimmers and gymnasts at the Division I level, I feel they’re just as athletic and deserving as the major revenue sports.

terps swimming cut

Schools, facing budget shortfalls and budget cuts, have already cut these non-revenue sports. My favorite hometown team, the University of Maryland, cut 7 sports teams like men’s tennis, both men’s and women’s swimming and women’s water polo because they ran a deficit in their budget (credit: Washington Post).

If all have medical coverage and receive a stipend, will this incur too much cost and lead to the dissolution of the non-revenue sports? Then more of those student-athletes will never have the opportunity to gain a good college education at the university level while on an athletic scholarship.

That isn’t right.

3. How would a union affect the NCAA profit model?

I’m no fan of the NCAA and how its burdensome regulation has led to dumb self-reporting like Oklahoma Sooner football players eating too much pasta (credit: CBS Sports). But, will the presence of unions create an atmosphere of schools signing contracts, not just letters-of-intent or commitment? Will there be a signing bonus with the school? Will boosters be more influential? That problem, which was big news during the 1980s at Southern Methodist University, led to the “death penalty” (credit: Wikipedia) and the sidelining of the football program for a year in 1987. The program only had one winning season in the next twenty years.

michael drake ohio state

Maybe it will make the schools more responsible and lower the outrageous salaries of the sports department, the coaches and even the university presidents. Ohio State’s newest president, Dr. Michael Drake, has a $800,000 base salary with about $200,000 in deferred compensation for a grand total of $1 million salary (credit: Why is it that high? Because of Ohio State sports and their research arm.

But my main concern is, will the cost be passed onto fans even more? The athletes will benefit and their families too, but will the fans rise up and protest? I doubt it because the huge NFL, NBA and MLB contracts haven’t stopped fans from going to games or rooting for their teams.

But I don’t think the NCAA’s outrageous $1.15 billion from TV ad revenue will be hurt too much by providing medical coverage. They made a little more than the NFL in 67 games than the NFL did in 11 games, with the NFL making $1.10 billion (credit: Business Insider). Still, it’s a big unknown.

4. Instead of unions, can’t we come to another agreement?

This is the slow, plodding NCAA we’re talking about. In a perfect world, we would combine the free market with centralized governance, or simply, make it like the pro sports. The players will have certain rights, like medical coverage and a cut of the revenue, and the athletic departments and schools will adjust accordingly and still make money.

Here’s one idea, via ESPN’s Darren Rovell (via 95.7 FM The Game). Why not give out an allotment to athletes of items to sign or autograph per year? If you make a standardized number of autographed balls, cards and jerseys, then you let the athlete benefit and allow the free market to dictate the value of these items.

Also, you could give out medical coverage to every athlete of every sport. But, it forces the athletic departments to be smarter with their money. That is a GOOD thing.

tebow florida

Then, you could make a standardized pay sharing agreement where the school and the athlete see a split of the jersey and other merchandise sales. Could you imagine how much money that the University of Florida Gators made off of Tim Tebow? He should’ve gotten a cut of that. If it’s 50-50, 45-55, or even 40-60 in favor of the school (or the athlete), it’s still better than nothing.

Sounds like a union? Pretty much. But, the main difference is that this is broken down into each school so the enormity of the college student-athlete landscape doesn’t burden the NCAA even more. Unions usually specialize for a specific skill set, such as a steelworker. The proposed Northwestern football players union would only include them and maybe basketball players.

northwestern football union

This way, each school and their athletes (all of the sports, not just football and basketball) can bargain or discuss an agreement, like contractors. The NCAA could barely get things right, so why trust them with more responsibilities on a national scale?

Those are just my thoughts. What do you think?


About Spencer Irvine

Fun loving, D.C. area sports fan, which means I'm frustrated and still can't get a grip on what a win truly means (or a championship for that matter).

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