If, and it’s a very big if, the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that Northwestern football players could unionize stands it could be the end of college sports.
That’s not to say it is right or fair that the talents of big-time college football players are being exploited to make billions of dollars for major universities. It simply acknowledges that college football, although extremely popular and profitable, is only a small part of college athletics in America.
College sports isn’t just football and bowl games or basketball and March Madness. It’s also tennis, swimming, golf, baseball, softball, soccer, track, wrestling, gymnastics and skiing. Those sports are generally played for the love of that sport and competition.
There’s zero profit in those sports. In fact, they are a financial drain on athletic departments of colleges and universities of all sizes. Basketball, too, can be a money pit at many schools. And football is an iffy proposition at small colleges.
It is only the big schools, those with teams playing on national TV every Saturday that are bringing in the really big bucks.
The NLRB ruled Northwestern University football players on scholarship are employees of the school and, therefore, entitled to hold an election to decide whether to unionize.
The decision, made by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the NLRB, was in response to a request by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter to unionize.
The decision will likely be appealed by universities, athletic conferences and the NCAA.
The solution isn’t paying salaries and benefits to the athletes, it’s to make sure all college athletes — from tennis to swimming — have insurance to cover injuries and a guarantee their scholarships will be maintained if an injury or accident takes them off the field or the court or out of the pool.
The unionization of players would allow them to bargain for compensation, which would be great for some, but this could essentially kill the golden-egg-laying goose that funds all college athletes.
Most student athletes would lose. Only the largest football schools — Alabama, Notre Dame, USC, etc. — would continue to profit under such a system (and that’s not necessarily a sure thing).
Once all the athletes from the less popular and profitable sports are paid, most schools would be hemorrhaging money to the point it would make sense to eliminate their sports programs.
It would come down to a cold, harsh business decision.
The players — the student-athletes — are not in a perfect situation now. The goal should be to make changes that benefit the student-athletes without blowing up college athletics.