March 26, a National Labor Relations Board director ruled that Northwestern football players were employees of the university and entitled to form a union. While Northwestern is appealing the decision and the players are preparing to vote, the long-term impact is far from certain.
Here are five potential scenarios for how the Northwestern union decision could change college football, ranked in increasing order of disruptiveness. They are hardly the only potential results of player unionization, but the internet is only so big.
Scenario 1: The empire strikes back
The NCAA announces that anyone accepting additional benefits, including supplemental income beyond the basic current scholarship or workers' compensation payments, is in violation of amateurism rules and immediately ineligible to play. Any collectively bargained benefits beyond the current letter of intent and scholarship rules effectively terminates the players' ability to do their jobs.
Players are unwilling to lose their scholarships over the fight, and support for the union movement collapses. The status quo prevails.
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Will it happen? Probably not.
The NCAA could certainly try this if it wanted, but the lawsuits for interference with contracts between players and universities, now seen as employment agreements at least at one school, would make the NCAA's current legal troubles look cute.
Also, it would be a PR nightmare for an organization desperate to keep the moral high ground.
Scenario 2: Limited exposure
Despite the win for Northwestern's players at the NLRB, unionization fails to catch fire. Players at other private schools resist attempts at further unionization, other NLRB rulings contradict the Chicago decision, and programs at state schools (which are not subject to the NLRB's decisions) are protected by state laws that make unionization more difficult.
Northwestern and a couple of other private schools give their players modest benefits through collective bargaining, the NCAA looks the other way, and things go on largely as before.
Will it happen? Extremely unlikely.
If Northwestern's players are able to collectively bargain for post-graduate healthcare and full-cost-of-attendance scholarships, other players would be crazy not to follow suit. If private schools are unionizing and providing better benefits than state schools, coaches at those schools will pitch the improved benefits to recruits and their parents. And if head coaches at state schools are losing recruits over things like concussion care and workers' compensation, they will push to get the same benefits at their programs.
Scenario 3: The white flag
The NCAA, realizing it faces an existential threat, agrees to a quick compromise. Full-cost scholarships are immediately permitted. Provisions are made for post-graduate medical care, particularly for concussion-related conditions. Additional player protections are implemented.
Basically, the NCAA gives the union supporters what they want to keep it from going any further.
Will it happen? It might be happening already.
NCAA president Mark Emmert backed the full-cost scholarship during a Sunday appearance on "Face the Nation," and other executives like Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany have previously backed the idea.
At least one current lawsuit against the NCAA alleges that the current scholarship amounts are a violation of antitrust law. Similarly, current lawsuits against the NCAA regarding player concussions are slowly moving toward an NFL-like settlement, with a fund set up to pay for damages caused by football injuries.
If the NCAA can concede something it doesn't really dislike in the first place and dispose of another legal threat while resolving the union issue and earning some much-needed positive press, there is no reason not to do it. If the players' union then pushed for additional concessions -- such as actual pay-for-play -- the NCAA would likely have public support for its resistance.
Then, programs could throw less money at increasingly absurd facility upgrades and more on improvements that would actually improve the health, safety, and welfare of their players.
There are issues, of course. For one, non-power conferences have resisted full-cost scholarships because they don't have the same revenue sources that the power conferences enjoy. Some have said that this will inevitably lead to a further breakup of Division I football, with the power conferences and their well-funded players separating from the conferences that cannot afford it. The more likely scenario is that the NCAA allows for improved scholarships, the power conferences offer full cost of attendance scholarships, mid-majors stay with their current system, and the major-conference programs only further solidify their stranglehold on the nation's top recruits.
Full cost of attendance could also have Title IX implications, especially if it is allowed for only revenue sports. Presumably, the rich programs that are opting for more expensive scholarships could just pay for all of their athletes to receive basic spending money. There also remains a question of whether employee-athletes are a Title IX issue at all.
Scenario 4: Unionization goes viral
The College Athletes Players Association, fueled by last week's victory and backed by the nation's top organized labor organizations, successfully pushes for widespread unionization. CAPA chapters spring up across the country, even in right-to-work states where players are not required to join the union in order to reap the benefits, and the union's massive bargaining power leads to immediate changes.
Players are granted workers' compensation benefits for injuries, extending medical benefits and income help past graduation for players injured on the field of play. The schools agree to provide players with indefinite healthcare benefits and find additional funds to cover the increase in scholarship and medical costs.
The NCAA, faced with the possibility of losing the entirety of Division I football to a general player strike or breakaway attempt by the major conferences, accedes to the demands and allows players to remain eligible.
Will it happen? The best possibility for the NCAA to lose the fight and remain relevant is Scenario 3, but that would require a level of foresight and PR acumen that the NCAA has never previously shown. So while the logical move would be to put a lantern on the problem and work toward progress, it's far more likely that the NCAA will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into an agreement by its member institutions.
Scenario 5: Global thermonuclear war
All of the things that happened in Scenario 4 happen, only one of these three things also happens:
- The universities are inundated with workers' compensation lawsuits from injured players, to the point that the settlements and/or insurance premiums become cost prohibitive.
- The union demands that players be paid, and either the universities cave or the players strike.
- The O'Bannon case ends in a cut of broadcast money going to a fund that pays players, perhaps after graduation.
If any or all of the three events above happened, the effect would be fairly clear: Programs would increase ticket prices and cut costs. Pressure would increase from everyone to improve deals for broadcasting rights, which could mean more concessions to the networks. The on-field product is much more expensive and worse for fans, and the ongoing fights between the NCAA and union drive away fans in droves.
Eventually, faced with high costs and bad PR, universities start scaling back football. We all end up in FCS.
Will it happen? The chance that work comp suits drive the schools into bankruptcy is slim, but it is exponentially more likely than the universities collectively agreeing to pay football players. The O'Bannon judgment has the possibility of changing things on its own, but a settlement that won't upset the apple cart too much is always the most likely outcome.
A combination of the three, though, could fundamentally change the economics of college football. More than likely, it ends in a two-minute-warning commercial break, but there's a chance of a complete overhaul if the pricetag gets too high.
What happens next?