Legal Intern, Manhattan Institute Center for Legal Policy
Last week, the NLRB issued a ruling that could potentially transform the landscape of college sports. In a 24 page opinion, NLRB regional director Peter Orh recognized Northwestern football players as employees of the university with the right to form a union and collectively bargain. Ohr imposed a three-part test that considered the amount of time players spend on non-academic pursuits, the nature of control exerted by non-academic coaches over the players, and the non-academic nature of the scholarships themselves. If the decision is upheld by the NLRB in Washington, it would mean that players could choose a union to bargain with the university on their behalf. That union would likely be the College Athletes Players Association, a labor organization founded with a focus on allowing college athletes to bargain for basic scholarship and injury protections. Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who initiated the petition, is a founding member.
The media response has been mixed. During the hearings, Northwestern cited its rigorous focus on academics, and its 97 percent football player graduation rate as indicative of a commitment to student athlete education. Bloomberg economist Allison Schrager has defended the current model, noting in her recent piece "In Defense of the NCAA", that from an economic perspective, the current system is preferable to a minor league for most athletes, providing them with an education and the opportunity to earn a degree that is far more valuable than any compensation they would likely get participating in any minor league. NCAA President Mark Emmerich somewhat echoed this sentiment recently on CNBC, noting that while a change might benefit 3 or 4 percent of the players who make it to the NBA, the opportunity for an all-expenses paid degree provides a greater incentive than a paycheck to the vast majority of players.
Even those who criticize the NCAA model are quick to point out the shortcomings of this ruling. Writing at Bloomberg, Megan McArdle writes that "given the realities, it's hard not to cheer the NLRB, but it isn't clear how much allowing football players to unionize will accomplish, as long as the NCAA is still allowed to make rules against paying them. Point of Law contributor Richard Epstein, who has in the past argued that "the NCAA enforces a cartel that denies earned benefits to college athletes," criticized the decision, noting Ohr's failure to examine the absence of the application of the common law standard for "employees" in any other labor related context, and takes Ohr's opinion to task for its notable vagary on issues like who is covered, the extent of negotiations, the conflict between choosing individual schools as bargaining agents and the coherent obligations of a league, and the chaos that might ensue.
Over the last decade, the NCAA has grown s to become a multi-billion dollar cash cow, driven primarily by lucrative television contracts related to BCS Football and March Madness. As the pot has grown without accompanying reform in the realm of player compensation, many have taken notice, and suits have been filed calling into question amateurism policies. The Northwestern ruling is the first to suggest a sea change is afoot. In February, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken allowed allowed a case brought by former UCLA player Ed O'Bannon challenging the NCAA's ability to profit off the likeness of current and former players without just compensation to move forward. Last week, anti-trust attorney Jeffrey Kessler filed suit against the NCAA seeking an injunction against enforcement of limits on financial aid available to athletes, which if successful would allow players to be paid for their performances. Even if NLRB in Washington should reverse the ruling, as some have suggested is likely, one thing is clear: this is just the beginning.