It’s really happening, and the day of reckoning is upon us.
An issue that should really be the number-one issue in college swimming right now, and in some corners it is, will now be front-and-center, as the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Northwestern football players do have the right to unionize as employees. Specifically, the ruling says that those who are on scholarship and have not exhausted their eligibility are, in fact, employees.
In his ruling, Peter Ohr, the Chicago regional director of the NLRB, said that Northwestern football players, who led by their quarterback Kain Coulter into forming a union earlier this year, are now to create a union board to manage it.
Northwestern has already said that it will appeal the ruling to the national arm of the NLRB in Washington, D.C.
The NCAA, while not specifically a named party in the suit, does have a significant stake in the outcome, and they were quick to disagree with the ruling on Wednesday.
“While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees. We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees.
We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.
Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college. We want student athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”
This could literally be the end of college sports as we know it. Student-athletes now will be able to not only negotiate over pay and wages, but a wide range of issues that would fall under the heading of “workplace safety” and “working environment.” If players don’t like their coach, they now have the right, as a union, to protest that coach, and depending on the laws of their local jurisdiction, they could refuse to play without risking their scholarships.
For swimming, this means a scenario where colleges might be forced to choose between investing their resources in the swim team, and using those same resources to satiate the demands of the unionized football and basketball teams. For many schools, especially those with very strong academic reputations like Northwestern, there is a chance, and it’s not a remote chance, that this will all be viewed as too far outside of the scope of the business of academics, and they might drop collegiate athletics altogether.
Athletes could now have the right to negotiate for more years of eligibility. Many college athletes are now around for 5 years or more, and they have the right to collectively bargain for 5 years of eligibility (not as individuals, but as a larger group).
This is going to turn into a big game of chicken. With the progress the Northwestern players have made, it’s unlikely that they’ll back down even if the NCAA cedes many of the major points. The problem is that the athletes, in this case as employees of Northwestern University, can only collectively bargain with Northwestern University, who will then have to turn and try and fit those demands into the guidelines of the NCAA: and NCAA that is made up of its hundreds of member institutions. This could restructure the entire NCAA, as schools will be forced to collectively bargain on issues over which they have no individual control.
Our prediction is that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and within 5 years that there will be a college football season that is, in whole or in part, boycotted. The good news is that there are people around college swimming who have already been planning for this scenario, but there is no way that this decision will leave swimming untouched – for positive or negative. The instinct is to say that it will be negative, because the attitude in swimming is that most things that are good for football are bad for swimming, but there’s too many unanswered questions, too many appeals remaining, and too many loose ends, to be able to draw those conclusions just yet.