Dave Zirin: US college football players win right to form union

The NLRB has ruled that the Northwestern Wildcats players are, in fact, workers.

The experts said that the efforts of the Northwestern University football (gridiron) team to form a union would crash and burn.

The experts scoffed that these naive jocks would lose their case before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The experts all believed that this is what they call “settled law”.

After all, since the 1950s, when the widow of a football player who died on the field of play failed in her efforts to sue the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for worker's compensation, it was clear to the courts that these were not workers but “student-athletes”.

The experts were proven wrong on March 26, and the established order in the sports world has been shaken to its foundations.

The NLRB has ruled that the Northwestern Wildcats are, in fact, workers. It ruled that since players do not get class credit for playing football, and are given value for their time playing football — namely, an annual scholarship that is worth more than US$60,000 — then yes, they can organise themselves into a union.

This decision marks the first real crack in the NCAA cartel. And it is far from over. Northwestern University is leading the appeals process for now.

They want the NLRB decision squelched for two reasons, both based in fear. They are afraid that if the football players can unionise, then the graduate teachers, the custodial staff, the work-study students and the cafeteria workers will all say: “If they can be a recognised union, then why not us?”

Northwestern fears those above them even more. If their football players are allowed to collectively bargain, the NCAA could shut them college out. This would turn off the spigots from which the almighty revenue streams of cable television money seem to endlessly flow.

Yet whatever response Northwestern is conjuring, it pales in comparison to the scorched earth about to be fired from the NCAA's legal guns. For the NCAA, this decision threatens its very existence.

The NCAA’s power emanates solely from its position as a cartel. That means it has the controlling authority to hold every school to the same byzantine ground rules, or suffer the consequences.

This controlling authority is now being crippled under the weight of its own greed. It has created an unsustainable system of free-market, freewheelin' capitalism for coaches and indentured servitude for players.

This controlling authority allows the NCAA to turn its so-called student-athlete players into walking billboards for the pleasure of its corporate sponsors.

This controlling authority has taken advantage of the fact that the two revenue-producing sports, football and basketball, tend to be populated by impoverished people of colour. It has created a system of $11 billion television contracts, where coaches make 100 times what they made 30 years ago.

Through it all, the NCAA never reassessed the position of the players themselves, and is now paying the price. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.

The NCAA is trying to avoid slaughter. It will throw millions of dollars in legal fees at this team from Northwestern and appeal the NLRB decision to the Supreme Court.

Yet let's take a moment to actually ponder what it would mean if other football and basketball teams followed Northwestern's example and “consciously uncoupled” from the NCAA's absolute authority.

What if some schools offer players a cut of the shoe money? What if the best players, as was suggested to me on Twitter, now avoid the Southeastern Conference because the states represented in it have anti-union “right-to-work” laws that make it harder to build a strong union?

Would this lead a state like Alabam — where Crimson Tide and Auburn Tiger football is king — to repeal its anti-union laws in an effort to keep the best talent available?

If nothing else, the end of the NCAA would open a gusher of money, and not only because that multimillion-dollar legal war chest could be used for something more productive than enriching lawyers.

The biggest canard of NCAA defenders is that if players get paid, then all sports, particularly women's sports, would be crippled. This is hogwash. These sports are already being crippled, with more than 90% of athletic departments in the red.

We can do better. It is time for a new model.

[Abridged from Edge of Sports.]