Northwestern's scholarship football players will vote in a secret ballot election Friday to determine whether they want to unionize. It's going to be quite the anticlimactic ending after a month of national build-up, because the votes will be impounded until the university's appeal of the regional National Labor Relations Board is decided — a process which could take anywhere from months to years.
With that said, the unionization effort will still have wide-ranging effects on college sports, and the buildup has been nothing if not controversial. We'll take you through what the future holds, as well as the arguments from both sides of the debate leading up to the vote.
What happens if the players vote no?
This point has been made time and again, but it needs repeating: Northwestern's players are not voting on whether they are employees. Even if they vote not to form a union, they are still technically employees if the national board upholds the regional decision.
So if the union is shot down, does employee status mean anything? It could have some tax implications, though players won't automatically be taxed, and regardless of your feelings on the IRS, it seems unlikely they would put an undue burden on the athletes to pay taxes on money they aren't seeing. However, Northwestern would be done with the threat of unionization for at least a year, when the players could potentially vote again.
While people will focus on the vote, the NLRB decision is much more important to the NCAA as a whole. That precedent will make it much easier for athletes at other schools to unionize. Plus, there's also the official designation of "employee" instead of "student-athlete," which isn't really important, but the NCAA does love its terminology.
One common misconception: If the players vote no, the NLRB decision will not end up in the courts (yet). For it to go to court, the university would have to refuse to bargain with the unionized players, who would sue for unfair labor practices. If there's no union, there's no need to file the lawsuit.
Obviously, Northwestern and the NCAA want a no vote, but it isn't entirely ideal, since they'll have no legal mechanism to fight the employee designation, assuming the decision is upheld.
What happens if the players vote yes?
This scenario is much simpler. It means that over 50 percent of the players voted for the union, and therefore, the university would be forced to bargain with the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent the players. However, Northwestern would probably refuse to bargain, be sued in court and keep appealing the decision all the way to the Supreme Court if it had to.
What has Northwestern been telling its players?
Northwestern has been urging the players to vote no since the beginning. All coach Pat Fitzgerald will say publicly is that he's trying to "educate" the players on the process and what would happen with a yes vote, but thanks to some documents uncovered by the New York Times and CBS Sports, we've gotten a better idea of the argument the school has put forward.
Fitzgerald's case has largely been based on trust and the uncertainty a union would bring into the mix. From the Times:
The Athlete Advocate
The Athlete Advocate
Coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former football star who is revered on campus, has framed a vote for the union as a personal betrayal.
He made clear that the university has the players' best interests in mind and that the players don't need outside representation.
"In my heart, I know that the downside of joining a union is much bigger than the upside," Fitzgerald wrote in the April 14 letter he emailed to his team. "You have nothing to gain by forming a union."
Fitzgerald's claims are based more on the fear of what would come from a potential union than they are on substantive fact. However, in a document obtained by CBS Sports, Northwestern does address some substantive issues, like tax status.
Is anyone concerned about Northwestern's stance?
Northwestern is well within its rights to oppose the union, and there has been no formal complaint that the university has disrupted the voting process by making promises or threats to the players. However, some former players are upset with how the university has handled it, according to the New York Times.
"We decided this is not right because it's interfering with the process the players voted for, that they established," said Kevin Brown, a defensive back during the 1980s. "It should be able to play itself out without guys hearing messages that they're hurting their school."
Some former players who support change at the school and NCAA levels have started an advocacy group called the Game Changers to help the players achieve change even without a union. They outlined their platform at a press conference in Evanston on Thursday.
The "Game Changers" 10 Point Blueprint for Change pic.twitter.com/WkXO5KoA9E— Jason Dorow (@jasondorow) April 24, 2014
Would the union actually change college sports?
For the first time, athletes would have real representation in determining their benefits, but other than that, the union wouldn't have a huge impact on the collegiate model. Athletes would be employees of their universities, but not of the NCAA, so they wouldn't be negotiating to change any NCAA rules.
Regardless of how the Northwestern players vote, the bigger threats to the current model of collegiate athletics are the O'Bannon and Kessler lawsuits. The O'Bannon suit is asking for a portion of licensing revenue from the NCAA and the five major conferences. The Kessler suit alleges that the NCAA and the major conferences have engaged in price-fixing by capping athletes' compensation at the value of a scholarship, and thus have violated antitrust law.
Both of these lawsuits have the potential to bring down the NCAA's idea of amateurism. And once you get past the fear-inducing sound of the word "union," all Northwestern players are really asking for is a seat at the bargaining table. That's not going to end, or really even change, college sports.