The decision by the National Labor Relations Board to overturn a previous decision from March 2014 and deny Northwestern football players the right to unionize was as cockamamie as it was craven.
It was cockamamie because the NLRB’s reasoning was that its decision “is primarily premised on a finding that because of the nature of sports leagues…[granting the Northwestern football team union rights] would not promote stability in labor relations to assert jurisdiction in this case,” What the hell does that mean? I will try to explain: The NLRB states that since it only has jurisdiction over the 17 private schools among the 125 Division I football schools, most of which are public institutions, it would be irresponsible to convey a different status onto Northwestern. (State labor boards, not the NLRB, oversee the public universities.) The argument is that since it would be imposing a different set of rules for the 17 private institutions, this would send the entire system out of whack, injecting “instability” into a climate that is currently stable.
This is absolute hogwash. Northwestern is its own entity where football players generate huge amounts of revenue and have their own grievances with coaches and administrators (what some might refer to as “management”). As people who generate income, and, as was ruled earlier by the NLRB, are “paid” with a scholarship, room, and board, they should have every right to organize themselves to achieve whatever else they feel they are denied, like decent medical care or better concussion protocols. As for players at state universities, they have the freedom to do exactly what the Northwestern players did and organize themselves in an effort to then approach their own state boards and ask for union recognition. That is how national campaigns work. Different states have different laws, different union freedoms, and unions still make efforts to organize across state lines. The fact that different labor boards would need to be approached is more an argument against the cringe-inducing bureaucracy that engulfs labor law in this country than the efforts by Northwestern players to be recognized as the labor they so clearly are.
The additional argument from the NLRB that granting Northwestern union status would produce “imbalance” is also absurd. The NCAA is not a collectivized farm where every school has its own equal plot of land, the only differences being the colors of the uniforms. Universities market themselves to players by selling what makes them individual. Alabama—to use just one of what would be 125 examples—sells the fact that it is always in the hunt for the national championship, that coach Nick Saban has a ton of connections to the National Football League, and that the equipment in its training rooms is so high-tech, it appears to have arrived from the NFL of the future. In fact, one of the reasons Alabama, a public university in the third-poorest state in the country, can afford such excess is that the value produced by the players’ labor does not go into the players’ pockets but instead—once coaches, trainers, off-duty cops acting as security guards, and campus “tutors” are paid—are poured back into updating the dead capital—the physical machinery—of the program so it looks attractive to current recruits.