NLRB, College Athletes, and Unions

I’ve hesitated posting anything about the recent NLRB decision regarding the Northwestern football players push to form a union for two reasons.

First, I am not a lawyer and I don’t know much about labor law. So I can’t intelligently comment on the decision itself. I am not in a position to evaluate the merits of the case or the applicability of the relevant law and regulations.

Second, the potential impact of this decision is monumental. It could change everything in college sports (or nothing, but more likely something in between). It seems impossible to make a comment without it spidering out to dozens of other relevant issues. How will this affect compensation and tax laws? What about Title IX and other sports? What will the impact be on the NCAA and its governance/oversight roles? More generally, if the structure of collegiate athletics changes radically, how will this affect higher education overall?

Each one of these is a complex issue in itself. This should tell you that the talking heads commenting on all this probably don’t know what they are talking about it. And after reading a lot of different viewpoints on this since the decision was announced, the one thing I can gleam is that no one knows how this is going to play out or what it really means. The only honest answer to the question “What does this decision mean for college sports?” is “Beats the hell out of me!”

Nevertheless, I wanted to make at least a few general comments.

I think it is an important aspect of the liberty of association and the liberty of contract that individuals are free to work together as a voluntary unit to achieve agreed upon ends. This is what a corporation does. This is what a union does. It’s what a university does. In that way, I don’t think there are compelling reasons for the state to prevent players (or anyone) from forming a union. (At the same time, I don’t think the state should force anyone else to have to deal with that union either—but that is story for another time). In this general sense (and without commenting on their reasoning), I think the NLRB decision was correct.

Additionally, I think the NCAA and the current collegiate athletic system is unfair, hypocritical, and just plain a mess. This decision may be a catalyst for some real change.

And this leads to the worry that I think many have. It may open the door for change, but what kind of change? Change is not always a good thing. As bad as the NCAA is, there is nothing so bad that can’t be made be worse.

Still, I am more sanguine about the reform possibilities than this suggests. At the very least it should be interesting to watch unfold.

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