The world’s higher education pundits have recently become very interested in the ruling by the National Labor Relations board that Northwestern University football players could organize to form a union. Does this mean that in the future college athletes will get salaries? Perhaps, but there’s a very easy (and very attractive) tactic for colleges to take to avoid paying their athletes: stop giving them athletic scholarships.

The NLRB states that the players can try to form a union because,

The Petitioner was a labor organization if two conditions were met: (1) its football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are found to be “employees” within the meaning of the Act; and (2) the petitioned-for-unit was found to be an appropriate unit within the meaning of the Act. …Both of these conditions have been met.

This came from an organizing drive by the football players at Northwestern. According to the decision,

Eligible to vote are all football players receiving football grant-in-aid scholarship and not having exhausted their playing eligibility employed by the Employer located at 1501 Central Street, Evanston, Illinois, but excluding office clerical employees and guards, professional employees and supervisors as defined in the Act.

This is exclusive to Northwestern University, of course, but many believe that this could spell the end of unpaid college sports as we know it. As Jake Simpson wrote at the Atlantic:

The push for reform will now proceed on multiple fronts, with the O’Bannon trial coming in June (unless court-ordered settlement talks are successful) and Northwestern’s appeal to the full NLRB also moving along. The future of the NCAA and college sports, even a decade from now, is anyone’s guess. But no matter how the courts and the NLRB decide, the struggle to establish student-athletes as employees will be front and center.

Well, maybe not. The interesting part of this is that, even if the movement spreads, it likely won’t result in too many schools actually paying their athletes. That’s because the decision of the national labor relations board rests on the fact the athletes are scholarship students.

If you’re paid money to play sports you’re an athlete. But not every athlete, even every really good athlete, has a scholarship. In fact, if you pay money to go to college this standard doesn’t really apply. You are a student.

So, in fact, colleges could avoid having to worry about unions at all by just not offering scholarships to students. Many college athletes, particularly those attending schools in the Ivy League Athletic Conference, don’t get athletic scholarships at all. They get the same financial aid packages as other students, based solely on family income. So they can’t organize.

This might not be such a bad thing. If a college doesn’t offer athletic scholarships to students, it can’t operate like a minor league basketball or football team; it has to operate like a college. Yeah, you’ll have less control over athletes, and you probably have less power in terms of picking a team, but this could be a way of returning us to the original days of the scholar athlete. Scholars first. Jocks second.

College sports could look very different this way. Colleges would have a very hard time using their financial leverage to build athletic powerhouses. But that might look a lot better, having incidental sports programs rather than central ones, than trying to maintain the same system and just paying the sports stars money, as if they’re merely toiling for the university’s glory, rather than really there for an education. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer