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Amid raging national upheaval over racial injustice this summer, college football players from across the Pac-12 Conference started a protest of their own.
Under the hashtag #WeAreUnited, the players in early August published an extensive list of demands on the Players’ Tribune website. Those demands included greater COVID-19 protections; greater control over the players’ rights to their names, images, and likenesses; and protections for nonrevenue sports in danger of being cut. But chief among the players’ demands was that the Pac-12 “distribute 50 percent of each sport’s total conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports.”
The #WeAreUnited group—reportedly supported by at least 400 Pac-12 football players—threatened to boycott the 2020 season if the league didn’t meet its demands. (Officials have since postponed the season due to COVID-19.)
The players’ stance raises the specter of unionization in college sports. Never mind that there is no way the Pac-12 will accede to #WeAreUnited’s financial ultimatum—and never mind that the NCAA prohibits schools from financially compensating athletes to begin with. A successful push to unionization wouldn’t just shake up the college sports landscape: It would be the equivalent of a destructive earthquake.
Critics of college football’s power structure have long accused the NCAA and its member conferences and schools of exploiting persons of color, who often come from low-income families. While the sport’s power brokers rake in billions of dollars from packed stadiums and lucrative television deals, the argument goes, the players themselves earn nothing—at least not beyond what their scholarships cover.
Unionization nearly happened once before in college football: In 2014, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board declared Northwestern University players “employees,” the first step toward becoming a union.
From a legal standpoint, the Chicago office’s ruling made sense: The National Labor Relations Act defines an “employee” as someone who provides a service for another, under the other’s control, in exchange for compensation. Technically, college football players can check off all the boxes: In exchange for scholarships that cover room, board, tuition, and attendance expenses, the athletes spend up to 20 hours per week—the maximum allowed under NCAA rules—preparing for and (ideally) competing in games. That doesn’t include the additional hours coaches expect players to spend physically and mentally preparing for games outside of practices and team meetings.
Universities are already bracing for a financial hit.
The Northwestern players’ unionization bid ultimately failed: The Washington, D.C., office of the National Labor Relations Board blocked the effort after the university appealed.
Should a group like #WeAreUnited be successful—and thereby be able to negotiate collective bargaining agreements like their pro counterparts in the NFL—the consequences would be disastrous for college sports budgets.
Universities are already bracing for a financial hit now that several athletic conferences, including the Pac-12 and Big Ten, have canceled or postponed their football seasons. The University of Oregon, for instance, predicts losses as high as $80 million. Such losses threaten the existence of nonrevenue sports. (Essentially, that’s every sport besides football or men’s basketball, which generate the money schools need to fund their nonrevenue sports.)
Should college football players get a cut of conference revenue, university athletic departments would take even more of a hit and ax nonrevenue sports such as swimming, field hockey, wrestling, or gymnastics to stay afloat.
College football teams would also face downsizing: Universities seeking to retain a larger share of revenue could reduce the sizes of their teams and, accordingly, offer fewer scholarships. This would mean fewer opportunities for athletes from low-income families to go to college, earn degrees, and thus increase their earning power.
Complicating things is Title IX, the federal law requiring that the athletic opportunities universities provide to men and women be at least comparable, if not equal: Schools cannot distribute, say, $50,000 in conference-generated revenue to football players and $25,000 to women’s basketball players, even if the women’s teams don’t generate as much revenue.
It’s hard to blame #WeAreUnited and other college athletes for wanting a bigger piece of the multibillion-dollar revenue pie. Still, college scholarships can be worth $250,000 or more over four years, not including additional university-funded perks given to college athletes. In addition, athletes who receive sports scholarships can finish college debt-free, sometimes with multiple degrees.
That’s not nothing.