This will be a much shorter post than my previous posts only because it’s really hard to come up with a good answer to the question posed by the post’s title. Within the last couple of weeks, the decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that football players at Northwestern University (a private institution) are employees of the university and, as such, had the right to organize a union just like any other employees generated a fair bit of buzz in sports news (for a primer on that case see here). An appeal is a foregone conclusion and the decision does not apply to the many public universities that form the backbone of the football and basketball powerhouse conferences. Given those two facts, how far-reaching this decision will actually prove to be remains unclear. Nevertheless, one can understandably look at this decision as a potential harbinger of a sea change in the world of college sports.
Here’s a list of other articles and posts that might be of interest:
- Bleacher Report: “A Sports Lawyer Explains what an NCAA Players Union Would Look Like”
- Hustle Belt: “How to Blow up the NCAA Without a Union: Jeffrey Kessler and the Antitrust Lawsuit” (an unrelated lawsuit, but related to the same topic of amateurism in the NCAA)
- Deadspin: “How Would an NCAA Union Actually Work? A Guide for Perplexed Pundits”
- Deadspin: “A Guide for Unionizing College Sports”
- Wikipedia: List of NCAA Division I scholarship limits by sport
Most of the discussion has centered around men’s football and basketball teams. That’s no surprise given that it was a men’s football team that filed this case and given the fact that men’s football and basketball (at many schools) end up generating more in the way of revenue than all other sports combined (although even with that much revenue, most NCAA sports programs don’t end up paying for themselves). What’s been lost in the discussion up to this point is what impact this decision will have, if any, on the many other college sports programs. Included in that state of semi-limbo are college track and field and cross country programs.
If Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and others were serious about their “All Players Union” stunt last year, things could get very interesting for college runners. Writing at Bleacher Report, Greg Wallace poses some questions that will have to be reckoned with sooner or later:
But if football and men’s basketball are unionized, would non-revenue athletes follow suit and then ask for a piece of the pie themselves?
How would a union fit into the structure of Title IX, the landmark ruling that allows an equal opportunity for male and female athletes?
Would programs spread the wealth equally, or would they instead choose to disband non-revenue sports?
Non-revenue athletes would be likely to outnumber football and basketball players at a good number of schools. But that doesn’t change the fact that the football and basketball players are the ones whose sports are generating the lion’s share of the revenue. Would Kain Colter feel quite as magnanimous toward those other athletes if they were to join the school-wide athletes’ union and vote themselves an equal share of all the revenue? Even in criticizing Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott’s argument against unionizing college athletes, Jerry Hinnen was forced to admit that a resulting redistribution of revenues could leave non-revenue sports “in jeopardy.”
Of course, the pipeline from college programs to professional running isn’t quite the same as it is for football and basketball. It’s possible that even in a worst case scenario (i.e., elimination of track and field or cross country programs) the overall state of the sport of running would be largely unaffected. Many runners already compete as part of club teams and major changes to the NCAA system might only prove to be a windfall for those organizations. Whatever the future holds for the NCAA and college athletic programs, this is an issue that track and cross country athletes and followers of those sports will want to monitor closely.