The NLRB Decision on the Unionization of College Athletes at One Institution Signals, but Will Not Determine, the Changes That Are Coming

The Tacoma News Tribune very recently published a very thoughtful editorial by Bill Virgin titled “It’s Not So Far-Fetched to See the Future of Collegiate Sports as a Business Entity” [].

Virgin considers the following contrasts: the erosion of the concept of the amateur athlete and the rise of professional sports as a major entertainment industry, the rise in the profits generated by intercollegiate athletics and the low graduation rates among college athletes; and the tension between increased allocations to intercollegiate athletics ostensibly to market academic institutions and the rise in student debt and cuts to instructional budgets.

Virgin concludes that the end of amateur collegiate athletics is on the horizon—not because of the recent NLRB decision to allow the student athletes at Northwestern University to unionize but because that decision reflects a broader societal awareness of the hypocrisy of pretending that, at its top levels, this “big business” should be able to generate huge profits for everyone involved except for those most fundamentally involved, the athletes themselves.

Like Virgin, I don’t think that there is much point in mulling over the specifics of the NLRB decision on Northwestern. It seems more significant as a pivotal event than as a critical event: that is, it has created an awareness and a certain momentum that will extend beyond even its being overturned in the courts.

I am willing to predict how the professionalization of big-time college athletics is going to occur: one or two large, pro-labor states, say Illinois and California, are going to pass legislation allowing college athletes to unionize and to be paid, and the passage of that legislation will so alter the competitive balance in intercollegiate athletics that every other state will follow suit.

The biggest profit-generating programs, particularly in football, will continue much as they have been, with the exception that those profits will have to be shared with the athletes. At the schools in Divisions II and III will continue to maintain intercollegiate athletics as something closer to an amateur endeavor.

The most significant and interesting changes will occur in the universities that regularly finish near the bottom of the standings in the major conferences and those in Division I but outside of the major conferences. At those institutions where the profit margins are much narrower or even non-existent—especially at those where intercollegiate athletics are heavily subsidized to fuel the dream of one day joining the “big-time” programs—there will be intensified debates about the fiscal soundness of those expenditures and the actual value of the “branding advantage” provided by intercollegiate athletics.

I suspect that at most of these institutions, the decision will be made either to participate at the Division II or III levels or to seek massive support from alumni and other donors to sustain the participation in intercollegiate athletics. This won’t happen immediately. A few reckless university administrations will have to bring their institutions to the brink of insolvency first.

But it will ultimately play out this way because, after three or four decades of rhetoric about the need to operate academic institutions more like businesses, those truisms will finally be borne out. Non-profit institutions cannot afford to sustain a big business–a major subsidiary, if you will–that keeps reporting major losses in revenue, any more than an actual corporation could do so.


4 thoughts on “The NLRB Decision on the Unionization of College Athletes at One Institution Signals, but Will Not Determine, the Changes That Are Coming

  1. College sports has been a business for a long time, just like the Olympics were even while amateur athletes competed. The Olympics moved to professional athletes and it got better. But don’t expect college athletes to get paid. The money isn’t there, and the leverage isn’t there. College football and basketball are the minor leagues, and baseball players in the minor leagues are even more exploited and paid very little. But what can change is the treatment of college athletes, and the kind of benefits they receive.

    • John, I believe that the top 60-75 football programs do generate enough money to pay the athletes. Business Insider did studies of how much the football and basketball players at the top 60 programs in each sport would make if the revenues generated by the teams were split equivalently to the player shares specified in NFL and NBA contracts. It’s not the equivalent of the pro salaries by any means, or even close to what most college coaches make, but its in the mid six figures. I will dig those articles out and do some follow-up posts on them.

  2. I am against allowing athletes to enroll for the draft of major professional sports when they have been given the opportunity to go to college and get a higher education, especially when they are given a scholarship. They go to college and then throw it away. And, the colleges support this and encourage it in the name of getting money from the NCAA, NBA, major networks, sponsors, etc. Those scholarships should go to real, deserving students who care enough and work hard enough to see it through to earn a degree. When an athlete is hired as a player without first finishing college they should be required to return the money, with interest. They should be required to first complete their education and earn their degrees. Then, they can be drafted. Too bad for Professional Sports. They might have to wait a little longer for their prized athletes. At least that way the athletes can make a living when they suffer a life-altering injury and are tossed aside like the garbage. They will have something that will last longer than their notoriety.

    The saddest part in all of this is that those that the Universities claim are the biggest benefactors, namely the student body, are the biggest losers. They and the Professors that teach them. What is it teaching the students when athletes are given scholarships and then allowed to leave without repayment and without finishing their degrees, while the rest of the student body are left with debt and struggling to earn theirs? Or Professors who are earning five to six figure incomes while Coaches and staff earn seven? To say that they are committed to their teaching and their tenure is a poor excuse for how they are treated.

    Our entire culture has turned to the almighty dollar. Gone is the day when those in the Military and Sciences were awarded the prestige and honor of awards and given parades for their efforts. Now, we give it to those that are paid millions for entertainment and instant gratification.

    I applaud some recent student bodies and unions electing to stop paying into intercollegiate sports departments through their fees. These were originally supposed to level the playing field (no pun intended) between those who are involved and stand to make more in popular sports than those in the other more minor ones. With burgeoning athletic department budgets and increasing tuition costs, they are choosing to stop supporting those in fields that they themselves do not benefit in and instead put the money toward there own efforts. When was the last time an athlete or a sports department had to put their money toward the Computer Science department? or the Arts?

    If the colleges and universities are trying to tell us that without these particular athletes and affiliations they will fail, then maybe it is time they do and get back to learning how to make them go without the programs. Once upon a time they did, when sports was not a primary focus. it was a time when the real focus was an education.

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