In a move that could potentially have a dramatic effect on Boston College athletics, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago ruled last week that a group of scholarship football players at Northwestern University were employees of the institution, and that they therefore reserve the right to form a union and collectively bargain for rights. The decision is a major hit to the National College Athletic Association’s (NCAA) definition of “student-athletes” and its stance that all players, including those in revenue-generating sports, primarily attend universities as students.
Northwestern officials have said that the school plans to appeal the decision to the national board in Washington D.C., and if the ruling is upheld it will likely then go to a federal appeals court. This could end up being a long process, and it’s doubtful that any collective bargaining will actually occur between Northwestern and its football players in the near future, but the parallels between this case and the reality at BC are striking.
Peter Ohr, the regional director who wrote the 24-page decision, cited four main factors in his reasoning that the Northwestern football players are employees and not “student-athletes.” They included: the control that coaches and scholarships have over players; the time commitment required to maintain their scholarships; the reasons behind their recruitment and the priority placed on their academics; and the revenue generated by their play. All four of those elements apply not only to BC football players, but to men’s basketball and potentially hockey players as well. Eliminating the revenue argument brings almost all BC athletes into the fold.
The 40 to 50 hours per week spent on football-related activities at Northwestern isn’t an anomaly-it’s the norm for athletics at major conferences. Also typical is the control referenced in Ohr’s decision, such as the constraints on when athletes can take classes and how they spend their time off the field.
Although the totals rank among the lower tier of the Atlantic Coast Conference, BC’s teams still bring in a good amount of revenue. The BC football team reportedly generated revenues greater than $22 million during the 2012-13 season, while the men’s basketball team generated more than $5 million, and men’s hockey generated more than $2.5 million.
It is debatable whether unionization is appropriate for any group of BC athletes, but it is important that they, especially those in revenue-generating sports, pay close attention to this case. Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback leading its union, said the goal isn’t “pay-for-play” salaries, but instead better medical protection, especially for concussions; increased scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance; and at least some say in determining control held by their coaches and the administration.
Josh Bordner, a senior on the BC football team, said the case was discussed in his sports law class. “I think with our situation, like, we wouldn’t do anything like [Northwestern is] doing,” he said. “I don’t-I think it might be good for some programs, but I also think there’s a ton of things that could go wrong with it.”
He also said he didn’t think many people on the team were paying attention to the case. Bordner makes a good point that there are potential downsides in attempting to unionize, such as risks to players’ draft stock and distractions during the season. Unionization also risks splintering relationships between teammates, as well as between athletes of different sports, should they be included in the bargaining unit. It’s important to consider the benefits of being able to collectively bargain for rights against the strains such a process could have on the athletes at BC.
The College Athletes Players Associations (CAPA), which brought Northwestern’s case to the NLRB, could target schools like Rice or Duke next, according to CBSSports.com, because football players at those institutions are less likely to enter the NFL Draft and damage their stock. That concern is greater at schools like BC, Vanderbilt, and Stanford, which have players drafted more regularly than some of the other private, Division I schools, but that doesn’t mean BC athletes should ignore this option entirely.
Vanderbilt Athletic Director David Williams told CBSSports.com that he has already begun to consult with lawyers about how the Northwestern decision could affect his school, and it would be wise for BC to do the same. Even if the chances of any unionization efforts by the athletes at BC are slim, the University and the athletic department need to be prepared for the possibility, while also making sure not to discourage the athletes from pursuing any options that might benefit them. Most importantly, though, the University could look to its Jesuit ideals and stand at the forefront of this movement by recognizing the legitimate concerns of the athletes at Northwestern-mainly medical care and guaranteed scholarships covering the full cost of attendance-and advocating for those changes to the system, rather than standing by one that is clearly broken.