Student-athlete union movement was long time in the making

Wednesday January 29th, 2014

Kain Colter and his fellow Northwestern players filed union cards to the National Labor Relations Board.
David Banks/Getty Images

They had watched the revenues soar. They had watched the people in charge get fabulously wealthy. They already had a pretty good deal -- the kind of deal most people would have severed a limb to sign -- but they realized they held more power than the people making the rules understood. So they banded together to fight for a better deal.

Does the previous paragraph refer to the Northwestern football players leading the charge to unionize college football players? Nope. It's about the six leads in the cast of Friends. In 1996, the actors who played Ross, Rachel, Monica, Joey, Phoebe and Chandler threatened to hold out unless they received raises from $40,000 to $100,000 an episode. They knew that if they negotiated separately, Warner Brothers executives might try to bump the pay of one or two and then strong-arm the others. But if they stood together, they held all the power over a cash cow for Warner Brothers and NBC.

Come to think of it, maybe the college players trying to unionize aren't all that different from Northwestern grad David Schwimmer and company. After all, the players are the stars of a popular, lucrative series of television shows. Their compensation (tuition, room and board) has remained flat even as the rights fees for their games have risen astronomically in the 30 years since schools beat the NCAA in the U.S. Supreme Court and won the right to sell their football games to television networks. This rise has manifested itself in the bank accounts of athletic directors and coaches, but it's also had an unintended consequence. It gave the players leverage they never had before. For a while, the players didn't realize this leverage existed. But judging by the events of the past few months, it has begun to dawn on them that if they consolidate, they can tap into the power their university presidents and conference commissioners unwittingly gave them when they negotiated those robust new media rights deals and became distributors of increasingly valuable television shows.

MANDEL: Sizing up Northwestern players' union movement; more Mailbag

The news that a group of Northwestern players had signed union cards and filed them with the National Labor Relations Board produced predictable responses. The reformer crowd predicted a players union might finally bring the NCAA to its knees. The status quo crowd trotted out the argument that college athletes already have a good deal because they receive a free education as well as training for potential careers in professional sports. The NCAA's general counsel responded by declaring emphatically that student-athletes aren't employees. It was tone deaf, but necessary. The NCAA must maintain this position at the moment. It is facing a federal antitrust suit brought by current and former athletes, and any admission that athletes are employees would solidify the plaintiffs' claim that the NCAA is a cartel of schools that banded together and made rules that essentially fixed the price for this type of labor. Meanwhile, the NCAA also must maintain this stance for the same reasons it cooked up the term "student-athlete" back in the 1950s. Employees are entitled to worker's compensation. Their salaries are subject to payroll taxes. Any change could get quite expensive.

The discussion of potential unionization on Tuesday led to an inevitable question: If unionized, might college athletes eventually strike? The players, led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, aren't threatening to strike. With an assist from Ramogi Huma, whose National Collegiate Players Association has been working to get a better deal for college athletes since the turn of this century, the players have crafted a platform that seems quite reasonable. It doesn't seek a salary for players. Instead, it essentially seeks the same true-cost-of-attendance stipend the commissioners of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC have pushed in recent years. It also seeks an evolution of NCAA rules that would allow athletes to cash in on commercial sponsorships. The group also wants a promise of long-term health care for injuries sustained while playing college sports and more careful treatment of concussions. Colter told The Chicago Tribune that the real endgame is a seat at the bargaining table.

Basically, the players want a say in how the rules that govern them are made. The NCAA will counter that athletes already have Student-Athlete Advisory Councils on nearly every campus that give them a voice, but there are a few issues with those councils. First, they're made up of athletes from every sport. Football and men's basketball players are the ones bringing in all the money. Therefore, they have different concerns than athletes in non-revenue sports, who really are quite lucky that someone has offered them a free education to play a sport few people want to pay to watch. And while many athletic directors do solicit and consider the advice of the SAAC on their campus, the wishes of the athletes rarely outweigh the wishes of the coaches when NCAA rules get made.

None of this is revolutionary. After all, this nation exists largely because people didn't like the idea of paying taxes to a government that granted those people no representation in its lawmaking body. The fear here is that athletes would eventually want more. Doug Gottlieb, a former Notre Dame and Oklahoma State basketball player who now covers college basketball and hosts radio and television shows for CBS, has some smart, salient opinions on this subject that differ significantly from what you usually read in this space. After ESPN broke news of the unionizing effort on Tuesday, Gottlieb tweeted this:

That opinion is noble but fundamentally flawed. In fact, here are three gifts greater than a free college education:

• A free college education plus $1 million.

• A free college education plus $1,000.

• A free college education plus a fish sandwich.

The doomsayers are correct in their assumption that this movement isn't as simple as the demands Colter listed on Tuesday. Could unionized athletes -- or non-unionized ones -- eventually demand more? Absolutely. And there is nothing wrong with that. That's how the economic system in this nation works. Workers demand the highest possible level of compensation, and management offers a package that allows the company to hire at the desired skill level while continuing to make the desired profit margin. These groups then negotiate and usually meet somewhere between the poles. With the exception of highly skilled/marketable employees, management usually has most of the leverage in those negotiations. Unions sprang up because workers realized that together, they had far more leverage than they had alone. This resulted in better wages, better working conditions and, on the negative side, some albatross contracts that guaranteed employees more money than companies could afford to pay during certain economic downturns. Those led to layoffs and, in extreme cases, companies folding.

Unions exert their leverage by withholding labor, and unionized athletes might do the same in order to seek redress of their grievances. Colter didn't have to mention this, because the formation of a union always implies the threat of a strike. Regardless of whether the NLRB approves the players' request, this attempt at consolidation should be a fairly effective negotiating tactic for the ultimate goal -- a seat at the table -- if conference commissioners and school presidents have been paying attention. After all, those commissioners and presidents provided the players with the stick that they might someday wield.

ELLIS: What does the Northwestern players attempt to unionize really mean?

Here's how the players could conceivably use their newfound power -- officially unionized or not.

Let's say a Pac-12 team decided to protest by not taking the field for a game scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN or Fox. That could get very expensive, and not only for the home school that would lose the gate, concessions and parking revenue. In 2011, the Pac-12 inked a 12-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN and Fox that sold broadcast rights to 44 football games and 68 men's basketball games per season to those networks. Conservatively estimating that 85 percent of that figure goes to football, that means those networks will pay an average of $4.83 million per football telecast. If a team refused to take the field, the aggrieved television network would -- quite reasonably -- expect to have that game removed from its annual bill. It likely would ask the conference to cover any money already spent on the telecast, and it likely would take legal action to recover anything the conference refused to provide. Now, imagine if every team in the Power Five leagues refused to take the field one Saturday. The Big Ten Network, a partnership between that league and Fox, would have no games to show. The SEC Network, a partnership between that league and ESPN, would have no games to show. ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC would have to refund or trade out millions in paid advertisements.

What would happen to the players? Probably nothing. Sure, the schools could threaten to strip them of their scholarships, but the PR hit for such an act would be massive. Meanwhile, the popular series of television shows would be scheduled again for the following week, and the networks would be increasingly antsy about the return on their significant investments. Schools couldn't simply kick the offending players off the teams and replace them with members of the student body. Trust me, I've been the member of the student body playing on the scout team against the scholarship players. No one would pay to see teams made up of non-recruited players. To honor their contracts, the schools would have to find a way to get the good players back on the field.

Thirty years ago, such an act would not have crippled the business of college sports. In fact, simply refusing to play the games might have saved money at lots of schools. The players were getting a great deal, and they had little reason to complain -- even though some of them did anyway. Now, for schools in the conferences with media rights deals in the billions, the cast members of the cash-cow television shows have a reasonable expectation of more favorable terms. After all, everyone else involved has gotten them.

Perhaps in their fervor to lock down such lucrative contracts, school presidents didn't consider the words of the late 20th-century philosopher Christopher Wallace, who posited that increased wealth brings with it a host of unexpected issues. The presidents, after all, are the ones who handed the players a huge chunk of power by building television shows around them. Now, just like those trailblazers Ross and Rachel, some cast members are trying to band together to demand a better deal.

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