NLRB ruling signals major change to come; more Mailbag

Wednesday April 2nd, 2014

An NLRB official ruled last Thursday that Northwestern football players are employees of the university.
David Banks/Getty Images

I recently returned from an 11-day, four-city road trip in which I was largely on the go and not in front of a computer. When the Chicago NLRB office issued its landmark ruling in support of the Northwestern football team's effort to unionize, I was moments away from watching a two-hour football practice, followed immediately by a three-hour drive to watch another the next morning. This is the first opportunity I've had to write about my reaction.

Stewart, is the Northwestern decision the beginning of the end for college football as we know it?
-- John, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Stewart, I'm getting really worried about the long-term stability and future of my two favorite sports: college football and basketball. With the recent ruling in favor of Northwestern's football players, isn't the writing on the wall that the players will soon be paid some type of salary? If you couple that ruling with existing Title IX implications, eventually won't all "student-athletes" have to be paid a salary? At what point do a large majority of the university presidents get fed up with all this professionalization of previously money-losing amateur athletics and just close down their athletic departments entirely?
-- Matt Coffin, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

The Northwestern ruling was incredibly significant, but for largely symbolic reasons.

It now seems inevitable that college sports as we know them are about to undergo transformative changes in their approach to amateurism. However, I would be highly surprised if, after the inevitable years of appeals and court challenges, the end result is that Northwestern and other private universities wind up with unionized football teams. While many, like Matt, have made the immediate leap from hearing this union ruling to speculating about salaries, I've yet to see or hear any major push in that direction. Getting paid was not part of Kain Colter's and CAPA's agenda, which instead calls for more modest athlete welfare protections like guaranteed scholarships and covering post-eligibility health costs for football-related injuries. The plaintiffs in the Ed O'Bannon case aren't arguing that players should be paid a salary, either. For the very reasons Matt brought up -- gender-equity issues, impact on non-revenue sports and more -- I see no realistic scenario in which college football and men's basketball players would be paid salaries while still under the purview of larger athletic departments. More likely, these teams would have to separate from the universities that sponsor them, at which point they would become semi-pro teams, not college teams. And I don't see fans being nearly as passionate about pro football teams that aren't as talented as those in the NFL.

However, the issue of athlete compensation is not nearly as clear-cut as the NCAA's press releases would have you believe. There is plenty of gray area in between those who are salaried professionals and those who are not allowed to accept a free sandwich. The NCAA's age-old amateurism model is already under widespread attack. In the span of about 15 years, a high-end coach's salary has jumped from $1 million to $7 million. Coordinators have gone from making a professor's salary to a mid-level CEO's salary. And an athletic director is receiving a near-$20,000 bonus because one of his wrestlers won an NCAA title. Meanwhile, that same wrestler would be ineligible if he signed an autograph for $20. That dichotomy is no longer ethically tenable.

STAPLES: Northwestern ruling sends clear message: NCAA, it's time to negotiate

And that's why the NLRB ruling was so significant, even if it never actually results in a union. In declaring the players employees, an entity of the U.S. government emphasized to schools that they can't keep hiding behind the premise of amateurism. Even at an academically oriented school like Northwestern, players are recruited for the primary purpose of helping field a prosperous football program. That's a wake-up call for anyone in the industry who thought they could keep trotting out Enterprise Rent-A-Car commercials as proof that the model is absolutely fine the way it is.

At the very least, several of CAPA's requests, most notably full cost-of-attendance scholarships, are already being addressed by the Power Five conferences. A forthcoming NCAA governance overhaul will give schools with resources the legislative autonomy to unilaterally pass certain athlete-welfare measures. The next seemingly inevitable step will be to loosen the limits on athletes' abilities to profit off their names and likenesses through endorsements and merchandising. I believe this will happen regardless of the upcoming O'Bannon decision due to the growing unease over the billions pouring into the system. However, the O'Bannon case has the chance to be even more consequential, as the plaintiffs are also arguing that athletes should be entitled to a share of television revenue. That's something schools will obviously fight; it carries many of the same potential budgetary and Title IX consequences as full-on professionalization.

So, to answer the original question, this is the beginning of the end of college football as we know it, but not necessarily to the extent that many are assuming. Personally, I think it's great if college athletes A) have a greater voice in the decision-making process and B) can gain some common-sense protections and additional compensation without bankrupting the entire system.

One final thought: There's obviously a wide range of opinions on this subject. I respect nearly all of them. The only ones that truly anger me are the extreme anti-NCAA zealots in the media who love to opine about the plight or exploitation of college athletes. I'm guessing these people have spent very little time on actual college campuses, because in my many visits inside athletic buildings, I've yet to find the nefarious labor exploiters we've been led to believe are on a quest for world domination. As for the players, perhaps spend a day with them and find out if they think they're getting a raw deal. They work extremely hard, no question. Their schedules are incredibly demanding. But, from what I've seen, most are generally satisfied with their experience in college sports. It can still be better, obviously, and the NLRB ruling should spur the NCAA's member schools to start enacting changes before a court or legislative body does it for them.

I'm sure you are hounded by the Northwestern news, so I apologize for the repetition. Because the players are now seen as employees and the end goal of being paid is what they are after, will they now pay taxes?
-- Brett, Charleston, S.C.

Again, I have seen nothing to suggest that "being paid" is the end goal here. Right now, this movement is primarily the brainchild of one specific player (Kain Colter) who saw injustices in the system and felt that he and his teammates should have the same rights and protections as other employees. Most experts believe that if players do head down this road, their scholarships -- their compensation as employees -- would become taxable. In fact, that's one of many reasons why I don't believe actual unionization will be one of the forthcoming changes that come to fruition. There's also no guarantee that Northwestern's players would go through with unionizing if given the opportunity. Actually, there are already indications of unease from Colter's former teammates.

Brady Hoke is 26-13 (15-9 Big Ten) since becoming Michigan's head coach prior to the 2011 campaign.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Stewart, here's a question that is sure to cause controversy. What do you consider to be the saddest fan base in college football right now? By sad, I don't mean the one with the worst team. I'm thinking of the proud fans with teams that have a history of winning, yet year after year, they just can't seem to get back over the hump.
-- Nick, Austin, Texas

There are so many possibilities here. No matter what answer I give, I can already see angry fans of about 10 other teams writing in to express just how much sadder they are than the fans of some other program. My initial thought was Florida. Gators fans have been pretty miserable since the day Tim Tebow's eligibility expired after the 2009 season. But they're just two years removed from a BCS bowl berth and six years removed from a national title.

My answer is Michigan. You won't find a much prouder fan base, as Wolverines faithful will happily give you a history lesson on Fritz Crisler and Bo Schembechler at a moment's notice. But Michigan hasn't lived up to its billing for a while. After enduring the three-year Rich Rodriguez debacle, fans thought they had found their savior in Brady Hoke, who at least snuck in a win over "Ohio" in November 2011. But they've since soured on him. Worse, the Buckeyes blew right through TattooGate and are once again thriving. So-called "little brother" Michigan State just won the Rose Bowl while Michigan got waxed in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

But hey, it's not all bad news in Ann Arbor. Michigan is a basketball school now. Maybe it can consult Wisconsin for tips on how to succeed in both sports.

STAPLES: Florida's offense embracing philosophical shift entering 2014 season

Although it's early, are you at all surprised by the frantic recruiting pace James Franklin has initiated at Penn State? Even with lingering NCAA sanctions, the major recruiting services have the Nittany Lions ranked as high as second in the nation.
-- Benjamin Briggs, Mt. Laurel, N.J.

No, I'm not surprised at all. In fact, I predicted this would happen back on National Signing Day. For one thing, there is almost always an immediate recruiting surge when a new coach takes over a powerhouse program. That first full class is typically loaded, because excitement is rarely higher than when the coach first arrives. But Franklin, in particular, is as dynamic a recruiter as you'll find. He's smooth, youthful and charismatic, exactly the type of personality to which 17-year-olds flock. He managed to sign top-25 classes at Vanderbilt, of all places. Put him at far more prestigious program with a 107,000-seat stadium, in a region in which it is by far the most recognizable power-conference school, and it stands to reason that he'll sign even more heralded classes.

As for the sanctions, while they're unquestionably going to impact Penn State for several more years, they're probably barely on the radar of players who won't enroll until 2015, the final season of the bowl ban. These guys were barely into their freshman years of high school when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. Remember, USC still signed plenty of five-star prospects following its sanctions until Lane Kiffin's coaching deficiencies were exposed. Ultimately, Franklin will face a similar challenge. It's one thing to recruit when your team is undefeated. It's another if the depleted Nittany Lions struggle during his first few years.

We all know the Big 12 doesn't play defense, so with some experience returning at the skill positions and Mark Mangino now calling the shots, can Iowa State be the new Baylor? Can it ride a high-powered offense to a surprising turnaround?
-- Grant, Des Moines, Iowa

I take exception to the first part of the question. It's an outdated and uninformed generalization. Three Big 12 teams -- Baylor, Oklahoma State and TCU -- ranked among the top 13 nationally in defensive yards per play last season. Kansas State was 27th. And while Oklahoma and Texas have underperformed of late, we know they have athletes on defense.

A more accurate question would be this: We all know the Big 12 usually has its share of explosive offenses, so can Iowa State field one of its own? And sure, why not?

To begin with, it's not unprecedented. Seneca Wallace was among the conference's first wave of dual-threat talents back in the early 2000s. Mangino won 12 games and fielded a top-10 offense at Kansas in '07 with diminutive quarterback Todd Reesing leading the charge. The Cyclones under Paul Rhoads have had some fantastic defensive players, but very little consistency on offense, starting with the quarterback position. It will be interesting to see what Mangino can do with Sam B. Richardson, Grant Rohach or one of their younger challengers. However, setting the bar at "the new Baylor" is a tad unrealistic. Art Briles is not only one of the most innovative offensive minds in the sport, but he also has the luxury of targeting prospects from Texas in his backyard. Baylor's depth chart has been loaded at the skill positions for several years now. Iowa State will always be more limited by its recruiting ceiling.

ELLIS: Ten redshirt freshmen poised to break out in spring practice and beyond

It wasn't reported much, but the basketball selection committee did a terrible job of seeding this year. The second- and third-best teams were No. 4 seeds. No. 8 seed Kentucky was favored over No. 2 seed Michigan. It never matters in the end, because with 68 teams everyone with a chance makes the field. However, the football playoff selection committee only gets four picks and it's quite terrifying that the big, serious names on it have no clue about handicapping football. How hard would it have been to hire some retired actuaries?
-- David, Dallas

While I disagree with the notion that the basketball tournament seeds should directly mirror the Las Vegas odds, there were some glaring discrepancies and some very strange seeding decisions this year. More than anything, this was yet another indictment of the committee's continued reliance on the outdated RPI as its primary metric. The poster team for this was Tennessee. The Volunteers were considered on the bubble right up through Selection Sunday. In fact, they drew a play-in game against Iowa. They were ranked 42nd in the RPI and suffered some bad losses during the season. However, they also beat one of the No. 1 seeds, Virginia, by 35 points on Dec. 30. Ken Pomeroy's more advanced ratings considered Tennessee the 11th-best team in the country. The Vols seemed an obvious favorite against RPI-inflated No. 6 seed UMass, and sure enough, they not only won that game, but also reached the Sweet 16 where they nearly knocked off No. 2 seed Michigan.

However, I didn't hear much complaining about the four No. 1 seeds. Most thought Florida, Arizona, Wichita State and Virginia were the four most-deserving teams. And that's all the football committee has to do -- pick the top four. I don't foresee the actual seeding being too controversial. Given the fact that this group is starting with a blank slate, I hold out hope that it won't become beholden to any one measuring stick like RPI. Hopefully, it will embrace advanced metrics.

The one area where I do think this committee will overlap with the basketball one is its emphasis on rewarding and punishing teams for their nonconference schedules. SMU was probably better than many of the at-large teams that made the tournament this year, but it missed out due to its brutal nonconference strength of schedule. In football, Baylor is putting itself at risk of the same fate.

As a UCLA fan, should I be happy that the Bruins have added home-and-home series with Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and most recently LSU? Or will it bite them if the traditional powers decide not to schedule more aggressively in the College Football Playoff era? I'm not following any other team's future schedules, but are you seeing more power-conference teams scheduling each other than usual?
-- Jason Kingston, Los Angeles

Yes, this is absolutely the right approach. Mark my word, a team that would have been considered a playoff shoo-in under BCS parameters will be left out due to a weak schedule -- if not this season, than one shortly thereafter. In fact, it may well be an SEC team that misses too many of the quality teams in its opposite division. The minute that happens, teams that haven't already beefed up their nonconference schedules will start scrambling to do so. And this, of course, is a good thing.

To whom it may concern. Just because the NCAA tournament is going on does not mean we can't talk about college football! Thank you.
-- Sebastian Caso, Columbus, Ohio

I hear you, Seb. But I can't do it without your questions. I had to scrape the bottom of the barrel (and filter through 800-plus spam-bot messages) for this week's Mailbag. By all means, let's talk more football. Starting now.

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