After the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Northwestern football players are university employees and can unionize, there was no indication that the accompanying earthquake damaged Ohio Stadium.
Despite predictions of seismic changes coming to college football, the old concrete monolith still sat smugly east of the Olentangy River, seemingly impervious to an assault by some overzealous suit in an NLRB regional office.
It could afford to, actually. Although the ruling could signal changes that will alter college football forever, there is nothing to indicate that football or college athletics are going to be ruined by it.
And any football program that can afford to pay its coach over $4 million annually — and there are nine of them, including Ohio State — probably can afford to guarantee scholarships and take care of athletes’ long-term medical problems (the changes the Northwestern players sought) and even give them their long-deserved share of the revenue.
Change can be scary. It can also be for the best. The people most worried about the changes the ruling might bring to the current system are the ones who are benefiting most from it: Everyone raking in millions now, from colleges and university officials, coaches (25 of whom make more than $2.57 million annually) and, most notably, the NCAA — an organization bloated by power and money.
NCAA president Mark Emmert knows he is in a fight to preserve the current model of college sports and was asked by the Indianapolis Star if he is apprehensive about it.
“I’m apprehensive in that the system right now serves 450,000 student-athletes and provides remarkable opportunities for them,” he said. “Should that model be blown up, yeah, it would be a significant loss for America.”
Well, for the NCAA, anyway.
The NCAA is poised to make $1 billion in annual revenue under the current system, so Emmert’s view of America might be a little different than yours or mine. And many of the officials at the 123 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision might not qualify as impartial observers, either: According to data that schools submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, those schools cleared $1.3 billion on $3.2 billion in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in June.
As the sports seasons grow longer and revenue increases, more people recognized that it isn’t unreasonable for players to share in this bonanza, beyond a college scholarship that doesn’t even pay the full cost of attending school.
The unionization of players might not be the answer, but that isn’t the point. The approval of that concept by a regional NLRB office likely will open the door for other rulings that expose the hypocrisy of the student-athlete model.
Northwestern law professor Roger Abrams wasn’t alone in predicting that “this will spread like a virus” and “we’re not going to see the same NCAA five years from now,” a mess the NCAA created for itself by clinging to its antiquated — but lucrative — model of amateur sports for so long.
Because of appeals, it might be years before the unionization issue is settled, but with the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit over compensation rights for athletes whose names and likenesses are used to sell merchandise set to begin in June, the NCAA and college leaders would be smart to acknowledge the fight is lost and start making changes before courts do it for them.
For years, major league baseball owners steadfastly held down players’ salaries by limiting their negotiating rights and their ability to change clubs with the reserve clause, always contending that the major leagues would cease to exist without that protection.
When the reserve clause was finally struck down in 1975 and salaries went up dramatically, we discovered that the only real losers were the owners. In this case, the same might be true for the NCAA.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.