The Unionized College Football Player

At a time when there’s rarely good news on the union organizing front, the regional NLRB decision allowing Northwestern football players to seek union representation as employees of the university has rightly gotten a great deal of attention. It will be appealed to the NLRB itself; it won’t apply to the far more numerous public university athletic programs unless state labor regulators choose to go along (in big parts of the South, moreover, public employees generally don’t have collective bargaining rights); and NCAA rules limit the effect on “compensation” of players via scholarships.

Still, in combination with a host of other legal threats to the current regime of big-time college sports (my favorite college football blogger offers sound analysis of how the decision intersects with the big picture, here and here), it’s pretty clear the balance of power between “student-athletes” and the big business they support is shifting.

There could even be a bit of an inversion of the usual “race to the bottom” that has contributed so much to the erosion of working conditions and bargaining rights around the country. The University of Alabama isn’t going to have unionized football players any time soon, if ever. But if Nick Saban decides benefits provided by, say, Notre Dame or Southern Cal might cost him a single five-star recruit, how long will it take him to insist that Bama meet the competition? Not long, I would guess.

In any event, I welcome pretty much any headline that includes the words “union wins.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.