NCAA Players Union: Be Careful What You Ask For

Updated: March 27, 2014
colter by Tommy Gilligan on flickr

Kain Colter, Photo by Tommy Gilligan on flickr

The NCAA is very tradition-minded in the way they exercise power and very forward-thinking in the way they monetize this big enterprise they control…that’s a nice way of saying they’re very hypocritical in using the term “Student-Athlete” for their product/labor force while running a multi-billion a year business.

It’s no surprise the NCAA has engendered resentment among its lowest-level constituents, the athletes. It is heavy-handed and intransigent when dealing with what can be the most minor infractions among athletes. Yet it doesn’t hold coaches and administrators to the same standards…adults who should be held out as examples in what’s supposed to be a teaching environment.

Meanwhile the NCAA negotiates massive rights fees, licenses the players’ likenesses for games and merchandise, as it mints money for its member schools. Nothing stands in the way of generating more revenues…even having to commute across country for conference games and missing school time.

So to the current issue, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled for the first time that “student-athletes” are workers thus allowing the Northwestern football team to unionize under the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Outgoing QB Kain Colter has been the players’ spokesman and indicates they are mainly looking for assurance of healthcare in the event of injury, ability to contract for endorsement deals, etc.

This is a big deal. First of all it’s the first crack in the NCAA castle walls. If this ruling stands the NCAA will no longer be able to dictate rules. Secondly there’s no doubt that better conditions and benefits will accrue to the athletes, thus increasing the cost of doing business. And for the kinds of common sense issues that Colter has discussed so far, it’s about time.

However is this the best way to go about it? Let’s play this out. The ruling says that student-athletes are workers as they provide a service, are managed in the act of that service by their coaches, devote sufficient weekly hours and are compensated in-kind in the form of scholarships. However if the IRS declares them to be workers they will receive W-2′s, so that for a 4-year/$200K scholarship, the employee would be hit with a $50K tax bill. And the university would need to pay new payroll taxes to Uncle Sam. And with more than 50 ‘full-time’ employees involved, the law says they should be enrolled in Obamacare (although waivers have been commonplace).

Muddying the NCAA waters even further, the NLRB has jurisdiction to rule on Northwestern as a private school but not on public state schools. So this ruling could apply for a total of 17 private BCS schools (think USC, Notre Dame, Miami, Vandy) and the other public schools would be governed by state law. There could be a wide range of union/non-union athletic programs, some with stipends, some with other benefits. What a mess.

Ramogi Huma from

This entire effort is a potential monstrosity for college athletics…and maybe for the athletes. They may be assured of better benefits but be liable for a big new tax bill. And after increased benefits costs, certainly colleges would have less money available for their athletic programs…fewer scholarships and fewer sports.

Ramogi Huma is the founder of CAPA and has been on a mission for 15 years to organize college athletes with an eye toward improving their conditions. He has been searching for a situation, an opening, to unionize players (who generally don’t want to jeopardize their limited college opportunity). His intentions seem genuine but this Northwestern employment gambit appears to carry more downside for the players than they may realize.

Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail. The NCAA should recognize that the plantation system it’s been operating for 1oo years doesn’t work with today’s democratized masses. It has too much to lose and is now facing major upheaval. Unfortunately aggrieved parties haven’t been able to get the NCAA’s attention without legal action. The Ed O’Bannon suit (which claims the NCAA has illegally used the images of former NCAA players for licensing purposes in classic video games) is another case of players being in the right and potentially upsetting NCAA hegemony.

The NCAA needs to come to the table and re-think the “Student-Athlete” relationship. It’s the right thing to do and it would avoid a coming legal and PR nightmare. This Northwestern case looks like it would go next to the federal NLRB for appeal, then federal court, maybe the Supreme Court. And for what?

Note to the NCAA: You’ve got a great thing going but the party’s over. I know there’s no precedent for you doing any of this but please…Step out of your comfort zone. Be smart. Be creative. Do the right thing.

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