Last Monday football players at Northwestern University took steps to be recognized as a labor union. The players are effectively arguing that they generate revenue for the school based on their performance, so they should be recognized as university employees. They are likely to fail, but still. This is an important moment in college athletics.
What does this hubbub mean to the University of Wisconsin?
Everything and nothing, all at once, and that’s without talking about Title IX or its implications.
According to Ramogi Huma, who would represent the Northwestern players, the goal is to “…get better concussion and other medical protections, and for scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance.” At this point they have no intention to pursue a pay-for-play model, but if the players are initially successful that stance may change. With a positive ruling in hand, there would be nothing stopping the student-athletes from pushing Northwestern’s athletic department down a slippery slope into the intercollegiate underworld.
The ruling, which will likely be bogged down in court for several years – especially if the NCAA gets involved and removes the case to federal court – will have no tangible effect on how Wisconsin’s athletic department operates. That’s because Wisconsin is a public school, and Northwestern is a private school.
The Northwestern players filed their petition with the National Labor Relations Board, which is governed by the National Labor Relations Act. This act only governs private organizations. Therefore, schools like Syracuse, Duke, Wake Forest, USC, Baylor, Stanford, and Miami would be forced to abide by the board’s ruling, but Wisconsin would not have to lift a finger. However, the separation of public and private school athletes would create a rift that could wreck the NCAA. That fissure would affect Wisconsin.
Jim Delany, the Big Ten Conference commissioner, has stated that the conference would drop down to a Division III model if the Northwestern players are able to form a labor union and college athletes are recognized as employees that could collectively bargain for wages. None of the Big Ten schools would have any athletic scholarships to give out.
Right now, athletic scholarships are available to male and female student-athletes who are (or will be) participants on an intercollegiate team. Recipients are chosen by the head coach of each sport and the coach determines the amount of the award, in consultation with the Director of Athletics. Students interested in these scholarships are required to be a member of a specific intercollegiate team.
If the Big Ten were to move to a Division III model, prospective players would have to apply for need-based scholarships, which vary in amounts, depending on calculated financial eligibility and the availability of funds. Some schools, like Wake Forest, will meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need. Others retain discretion to determine how much aid a student receives. You can see how this would turn into a hot mess.
Furthermore, if student-athletes at Wisconsin were able to form a labor union (by filing petitions and union cards to state labor boards) they would have restricted collective bargaining rights. Employees of the University of Wisconsin must abide by state labor laws, including Act 10, which Governor Walker passed in 2010. Players would only be able to bargain collectively for wages. They wouldn’t be able to bargain for healthcare or guaranteed scholarships, so it would mostly be an exercise in futility.
If the Northwestern players win, college sports could see a dramatic shift in where top recruits choose to attend school. Players would flock to private schools in order to have healthcare and their full cost of attendance covered. Wisconsin would lose some players, and the university as a whole would drastically scale back its athletics programs along with the rest of the Big Ten’s public schools. No one wants to see that happen.