In a landmark decision, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that Northwestern football players do, in fact, qualify as employees of the university and thus have the ability to unionize.
College sports as we know it may never be the same.
“You called it seismic,” legal analyst Alan Fanger said on The Damon Amendolara Show. “This is a game-changer for college athletics. I actually think it spells the end of non-revenue sports. These big-time football and basketball programs subsidize the lesser programs – the soccer team, lacrosse, hockey, gymnastics. Those sports could all go by the wayside as a result of this decision.”
Fanger, a Boston trial attorney, said he was surprised by the ruling.
“I’m actually a bit shocked by it, I have to say,” he said. “Although, if you read the decision, the decision makes a lot of sense. The decision really discusses the disconnect between the academic world at Northwestern and this football program that really exacts just about everything that these kids have: 40 to 50 hours a week during the season, probably 30 hours a week out of season, and the total control of their lives that starts with the head coach and works its way down through position coaches.
“And when you read it, over the course of 24 pages, you end up saying, ‘You know what? It really does look like these guys are employees first and students second.’”
But how will this ruling alone spell doom for college athletics as we know it?
“Let’s assume – and I think it’s a pretty safe assumption – that you and I, as potential season-ticket holders, would not pay meaningfully more at the gate to see games,” Fanger began. “You’re not going to pay 75 percent more to see a Syracuse game. I’m not going to pay 75 percent more to see a Michigan game. If that’s the case, you’ve got potentially the right of these Division I private institution athletes – we’ll have to deal with the state institutions later on – to unionize. They will probably, in most cases, vote to unionize, in which case they’ll have the right to collectively bargain like any union unit would. And I assume that would result in them being paid salaries that are in excess of their scholarship money, so that cuts into the bottom line. If there’s less of an income stream or less of a profit margin, that means the ability of those big-time programs to subsidize the small sports is going to be dramatically impaired and you’re going to see some of these smaller sports go by the wayside.
“Either that, or you’re going to see the number of scholarships at these D-1 football and basketball powerhouses, I think, meaningfully reduced.”
Football programs, for example, may go from 85 allotted scholarships to, say, 50 or 60.
“That could very much be in the cards,” Fanger said.
Still, Fanger said it would be at least three years before anything could actually be implemented – and even then, it would be appealed in federal court.
“I cannot envision a scenario,” he said, “where the Supreme Court does not take up this case given a) the novelty of the legal issue involved and b) the impact that the decision would have on college athletics.”