Zachary Nickels explores the story of Northwestern Football’s vote to unionize, the vote that no one is talking about despite its potential to destroy the NCAA as we know it.
Here’s a fun fact for you: when it comes to the legal exploitation of a labor force, no one does it like the NCAA. College football players (and college basketball players) are the most exploited members of the United States workforce, and it isn’t even close.
Admittedly, this is a statement that some would disagree with (namely the NCAA), but the truth is that there is no other body of workers that is as essential to the creation of revenue that is as underpaid as college football players: they are the product. Furthermore, it is also true that NCAA athletes, especially football players, are denied their ability to make a living because of the restrictions placed upon their ability to be drafted and play at the next level based on how many years they have completed in school.
These restrictions look and sounds a lot like collusion because they are: both the NCAA and the NFL prohibit players from earning a living by forcing them to stay in school, thereby placing restrictions on their earning potential. This is the only sector of American business that places these kinds restrictions on potential workers that are not already levied by the federal government (e.g. child labor laws), and what is more egregious is that players do not receive any part of what the NCAA makes off of their performance, or even their jersey sales. On the surface, it would appear that the monopoly the NCAA holds on college athletics is ironclad, that there is nothing the players can do .
But there is the potential for change. And that potential lies in a vote that the Northwestern football team cast to unionize back in April.
We do not know the result of this vote today, and we may not know it for months from now, but what we do know is this: that vote has the potential to destroy the NCAA.
Before we can talk about the vote, we have to talk about the exploitation of the athletes.
Forbes published a report almost a year ago detailing both the football related profit and the football generated revenue of the top 20 teams in the country (in terms of total team worth) for the 2013 season. It comes as little surprise that every school on the list cleared a twenty million dollar profit (save Wisconsin who “only” cleared nineteen million). Both the profit and the revenue are important to look at closely because together they expose obvious information that is not immediately evident: namely that a school like Alabama can spend nearly 42 million dollars on their football program without having to pay salaries to their players. Alabama made nearly about 89 million dollars in 2013 and cleared about 47 million dollars in profit.
In contrast, the expected cost for an out-of-state student to attend Alabama is roughly 50,000 dollars a year, and Alabama has 85 full scholarships that can be given at one time. This means that it only costs them 4.25 million dollars a year to have arguably the best college football roster on the planet. This number does not include the kids that they offer scholarships to and then take away after the players have committed and begun attending Alabama, nor does it include the fact that the NCAA only counts a full scholarship as the money a player has to pay the university. Miscellaneous expenses like eating a personal meal when traveling to a road game, therefore, are not covered. What this means is that roughly one-tenth of Alabama’s football expenses go to player scholarships, and this is exactly what football programs want because it means controlled costs. It means that unlike professional sports wherein a player is lured to small-market organizations because of the potential for higher payment, big-time universities need only to rely on two things: their name and their coach. This is why it is no surprise that Alabama has the most expensive coach in the country.
Surely Alabama coach, Nick Saban, is a great college coach, possibly a transcendent one. Even if you only look at his seven years spent at Alabama, he has still compiled a record of 74-15 with three national championships in what is unquestionably the toughest conference in the country. Other than his first year at Alabama when he went 7-6, he has only lost more than two games in a season once, in 2010. In related news, Nick Saban makes more money than any other college football coach in the country. This past December, he signed a contract that will earn him 6.9 million dollars for the 2014 season and for every year until 2022. This means that Nick Saban makes more than one and a half times the amount of his players’ scholarships combined. This was a brilliant move by Alabama. Even when you take into account the fact that Texas was rumored to try and make a run at Saban to replace Mack Brown (Texas was prepared to offer Saban a 100 million dollar contract. To put this in context, only 19 players in the NFL have ever been given a 100 million dollar contract.), when the cost of your players is fixed, it makes perfect sense to overpay a coach that can bring championships to your program. For prospects across the country, Saban is the allure of Alabama: he alone can promise the best possible opportunity to contend for a national championship and to be drafted, and when money is not at stake those are the only two things that really matter to a kid trying to make a decision on where to go to school. In reality, Saban probably does not make enough, which is insane, but entirely accurate.
This is not true for professional football, however. In the NFL, players weigh multiple considerations on where to go during free agency, and, because the players are the product, the coaches matter less (though Bill Barnwell might disagree). This is important to keep in mind, especially when thinking about what Northwestern players did when they voted on whether to unionize: college coaches do not want their players to unionize because the ability to pay players would decrease the importance of a college coach. Four years ago, Bill Belichick was given a seven and a half million dollar contract, half a million more than Saban. But there is a major difference between the two and their salaries in relation to their team’s:
In order for Belichick to make an amount equal to his player’s combined salaries, he would have to have his salary multiplied 17 times. Granted, NFL teams make significantly more money than college football programs (the Patriots’ revenue in 2013 was 428 million), but the fact remains that when operating any business, the more fixed expenditures you can have the better, and the biggest potential expenditure that college football teams have is the payment of players. As it stands, in relation to Alabama’s football-related income, Alabama’s roster receives nearly five percent of the total amount of money that Alabama brings in. By comparison, the Patriots’ roster made 26.5 percent of the Patriots’ 2013 revenue, and there is a reason for the disparity. College football players do not see any money that comes from network television deals, corporation sponsorships and, because they are considered “amateurs,” they are not eligible for individual sponsorship deals, which is how most top professional players make up the difference in the money they could make in lieu of collective bargaining.
The NCAA, the universities and the coaches, do not want to see college football players unionizing because with unionizing comes collective bargaining and worker’s compensation and a whole host of problems that undermines the total control that these parties have over college football players. There is not a single person within the world of college athletics that supports the decision the Northwestern players made, and that makes what they have done that much more remarkable, regardless of whether their efforts succeed or fail.
When the news broke in January that there was a school whose football players had petitioned to be represented by a labor union, the choices of who that school might have been were limited. First, it had to be a school that resided in a major football conference, because players in a minor conference would not have had the incentive to unionize–the reward would not have be worth the hassle. Second, it had to be a school with a major academic reputation, because those are the schools that have the type of kids who would have the understanding of what unionizing would mean for the national picture and for them personally, which limited the pool of universities to Northwestern, Stanford and a few others. When the news broke, Northwestern publicly stated, “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.” But the point here is that Northwestern is the type of school that has both the reputation and the students to pull something like this off; there is a kind of institutional support here. The university also stated: “Northwestern is proud of our students for raising these issues,” and this is why, with this issue, the university matters almost as much as the players.
There ought to be an immense amount of respect given to Kain Colter and the rest of the Northwestern players for taking the steps necessary to becoming recognized as employees of Northwestern, even if not all of them voted in favor of unionizing. The same respect, however, should not extend to the NCAA. When the news first broke that the Northwestern team was going to file their petition, the NCAA responded through the mouthpiece of their Chief Legal Officer, Donald Remy, by issuing the following statement, “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”
This statement was obviously against the initial petition to file to become a part of a labor union, but what it speaks to is a much larger problem, a problem that the NCAA does not seem to realize, or is unwilling to acknowledge, that it has: the NCAA’s public statements do not match its private interests. To clarify, that statement is utterly offensive to every single college athlete in America, and the NCAA should be embarrassed that they allowed it to be released.
The NCAA does not act in the best interests of the universities, it acts in the best interests of the NCAA; the NCAA does not act in the best interests of students, but instead acts in the best interests of the NCAA.
The previous sentences are empirically true, but there are those (especially the NCAA) who believe that the NCAA exists to act upon the best interests of the athletes that it controls: this is egregiously false. The statement that the purpose of college for all players is to get an education would be more disingenuous if it were not so abhorrent.
First, the NCAA assumes, or is instead just openly lying when they say that the principle purpose of going to college is to receive an education; this is incorrect. The reason that most people in America go to college is to get a job or a career upon leaving college; the degree they receive is a prerequisite for obtaining that job.
Second, while there may be many players who go to school on an athletic scholarship to merely study, the NCAA ignores the fact that there are players who are going to the NFL, or who believe that they will, and are struggling financially because they rely on their athletic ability to eventually earn money in life, not their mental prowess. To deny those individuals their earning power is morally irresponsible, but again, the NCAA is not in the business of looking out for “student-athletes.”
Third, even if the point of college for all athletes is to get an education, this would still not eschew the fact that players spend more time on the field and in the weight room than they do on their academics, not by choice, but because that is what it takes for them to keep up with their athletic scholarships, something that Colter spoke to during the Chicago Labor Board hearings. If the NCAA allows scholarships that are distributed based upon an individual’s skill at playing football as opposed to their ability to solve differential equations, then there is no room to say that the players holding those scholarships are in college first and foremost to receive an education. That is a lie. Those players are there to make money for the NCAA and for the universities that they represent. And while it is a problem that the NCAA believes that what they say is actually the truth, the bigger problem (for the NCAA) is how arrogant they are about the entire process; the NCAA has consistently held that the belief that paying college athletes will go away, even with the mounting public pressure that is not, and will not, go away.
This is a problem whether the NCAA wishes to acknowledge it or not, because if the ruling by the Chicago district of the National Labor Board holds and the Northwestern team voted in favor of unionizing, then all hell breaks loose. Because once those union papers are signed, collective bargaining is not far behind, and when paying players becomes a reality the NCAA is in trouble. As Tony Kornheiser has suggested on Pardon the Interruption, the biggest schools in the country do not need the NCAA to function in the world of college football. They could go off and start their own organizing body that would allow them to pay players. Because as soon as universities realize that the NCAA limits them from being able to compete for the best high school prospects by outlawing or restricting spending, they will leave the NCAA faster than the NCAA will realize what is happening. This includes all of the SEC, half of the Big Ten, half of the Big 12, USC, Notre Dame, Florida State, Oregon, Clemson, Miami, etc.; there will not be anyone left for the NCAA to rule over because the schools listed can all exist independently from the NCAA. And once those schools exit, the other schools are not far behind. If they were being honest, the NCAA would acknowledge that they proposed the “Power 5” model to placate those schools that would leave if players were able to unionize, but this model is a stopgap measure at best. The Northwestern vote, and, more recently, the Ed O’Bannon ruling, has shown that the NCAA will not survive the fallout that would result if players received proper compensation and their own voice. This is what happens when you pretend a problem does not exist.
If the NCAA wants to continue to survive it cannot be stupid, and the way that they have handled the Northwestern union filing shows that they are committed to being stupid into the future, both in how they deal with this issue from a legal standpoint and from a personal relations standpoint. Industries cannot piss off their consumer bases for the sake of obtaining a few extra dollars, because sooner or later those industries will offend those bases.
If the NCAA goes after the college kids that are attempting to unionize, they will piss off a lot of people. They will alienate college football fans and regular people who care little about college football but who work regular, blue-collar jobs and who are in unions themselves. And those people will support a college football team that votes to unionize, whether it is Northwestern or some other school. And when that happens, when the NCAA splinters their relationship with the public, the big-time universities will realize that they do not need a middleman between them and their consumers, that they can exist without the NCAA and that it is more lucrative for them to do so. At that point, the NCAA is dead in the water. The only question is whether they will be able to see past their hubris and try to make this thing work, to stave off their extinction, and the way things are going, it seems like the answer is almost emphatically “No.”
The vote that no one is talking about has the potential to destroy everything the NCAA has built. But here’s the thing: They deserve it.