A Big Ten football team is officially allowed to unionize.
The National Labor Relations Board’s Chicago district ruled Wednesday that Northwestern football players count as university employees and thus are allowed to unionize, based on their time commitment and the link between their scholarships and their performance.
After the decision was released, some officials told reporters they agreed with it.
Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association and College Athletes Players Association, said he was excited about the decision.
“I couldn’t be more happy and grateful for today’s ruling, though it is the ruling we expected,” Huma said. “The NCAA invented the term student-athlete to prevent the exact ruling that was made today … The reality is players are employees, and today’s ruling confirms that. The players are one giant step closer to justice.”
Northwestern, though, released a statement that it plans to appeal the decision.
“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” its statement read. “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”
A union is an organization of employees that works together to achieve common goals. But it’s not that simple.
Unions can vie for pay raises, health care benefits and cuts in the number of hours workers are expected to contribute each week. These are great things on some level: employees can’t be expected to work outrageous hours, they get paid more and they can count on better health benefits.
But outside of that bubble, problems can emerge.
Unions take away the control employees who don’t belong have because the union’s management typically decides when and what to negotiate for. New employees at a company can be required to join the union and pay the dues. Employees can also lose the right to get paid based on their particular areas of expertise as some unions look to compensate workers on the number of years of experience, rather than the quality of their experience.
There’s also an element of inefficiency that can come along with the decision to unionize: as an example, if the union decides to go on strike to negotiate a new deal with its company’s management, workers who disagree aren’t supposed to work anyway and can be pressured to participate.
So how could this play out at Northwestern?
Players would get a say in their treatment.
Players might eventually try to get paid, which if successful, could complicate their relationships with their coaches, professors and peers because they would be paid employees rather than students participating in varsity sports.
Though the number of hours players are allowed to be required to practice and participate in team activities is regulated by the NCAA already, a players’ union could feasibly give the Northwestern team the ability to negotiate for less hours. Less hours required leads to less practice, which could quickly slide into the team getting worse and generating less revenue. But if there’s less revenue, how do the players get paid?
There also comes the risk of a strike — if players go on strike and games can’t go on, what happens? Do universities bow to players’ demands or do they call off the football program?
NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said the NCAA, however, doesn’t think the players should be allowed to unionize.
“We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees,” the statement read.
After Wednesday’s decision, Northwestern is slated to serve as a textbook example of whether players should unionize. What remains to be seen is what lesson that example will teach and whether other schools will follow suit.