When it comes to college football, winning is the ultimate goal. The rest is just window dressing. Something like a high graduation rate is nice, but it’s a talking point for schools with a losing record. Florida, The Ohio State University, Florida State, etc. didn’t build their powerhouse football reputations on graduation rates. Nor did Nick Saban’s salary increase to $7.5 million per year have anything to do with graduation rates.
Since the March 26 NLRB ruling on the Northwestern players’ union, sports journalists have written about how unionization could affect college football; academics have assessed whether football players fit the NLRA definition of employee under sec. 2(3); and commentators have criticized the profit schools make on college sports. This is all nice. And I have my opinions on the subjects (this looks a lot like Brown University, 342 NLRB No. 42), but let’s not pretend that Division 1 college football players are normal students, as this UNC “paper” scandal makes evident. But, again, it’s all window dressing. How will this affect Northwestern’s winning percentage? Is unionization Northwestern’s route to claiming Big Ten supremacy from OSU? Or will it doom the school to repeated last place finishes in the Big Ten’s Legends division?
The effects of unionization on employee happiness and productivity have long been studied and debated (See, e.g., The Economist, SEIU). As has unionization’s effect on the employer-business relationship (see, e.g.,Heritage, CAP). But this is different. Here, college football players are both the employees (input) and the product (output — talented players translate to wins). This isn’t like the production of widgets by hundreds of blue collar workers. This is more like the hypothetical unionization of accountants, lawyers, or doctors — workers who are also the product (all of whom have unionization restrictions under NLRA sec. 2(12)). Nor does the NFL model help because all NFL players — Cowboys and Giants alike — operate under the same collective bargaining agreement (through the NFLPA).
So let’s speculate: Kain Colter (outgoing Northwestern quarterback and spokesperson for the proposed union) insists that his teammates are not unionizing to demand pay, but for “protection against losing scholarships in the event of injuries, and other basic sorts of treatment and respect.” Could this be enough to induce top players to turn down offers at, say, USC or Oregon (typically better football programs), and play for Northwestern? Unlikely. Most athletes don’t sign “National Letters of Intent” (an agreement to play for a certain school) based on level of medical treatment in the case of injury. And the very top players (the ones Northwestern needs to compete with OSU) have their eyes on the main prize — the NFL — and will likely sign with the schools best able to send players to the pros.
But what if the Northwestern union uses its beachhead to later secure the elephant in the room: payment for play. Will that sweeten the deal enough to steal talent from non-unionized opponents? The pay won’t be a ton (it would be a percentage of whatever is left over after paying coaches, building facilities, paying for scholarships, etc., and then it would be divided by the 112 players on the team), and top players are likely to defer this small three year payment (the number of years a college player must play before turning pro) for a better shot at a national title and more attention from NFL scouts (and the big payout it entails). And when you’re 18, it’s hard to rationalize that you’re good enough to play Division 1 football, but not good enough to have a shot at the NFL. (1.7 percent of all college football players go pro, but about 4 percent of Division 1 players go pro).
Then there’s the other side of the equation: the school. Whatever demands the union inserts into the collective bargaining agreement will cost the employer (increased scholarship money, better medical treatment, and direct payments don’t simply materialize, they come from somewhere). The union might argue that these costs will be offset by the increased ticket sales that will result from healthier and happier players. Unlikely. So the question becomes: where will the extra money come from? Will money be diverted from football facilities? Will Northwestern pay its football coaches less? (And yes, coaches matter). Both of these solutions would adversely affect Northwestern’s record.
Alternatively, Northwestern could decide to replenish the football program’s money by cutting other sports programs (ones that don’t bring in money or draw national attention). Or it could raise ticket prices (but would this hurt the fan base). What happens if the unionization model spreads to schools who don’t currently make money on their football programs? Will they say that added union costs are too much for the camel’s back and simply scrap the football team?
Unionization will impose added costs, and these added costs could potentially take away from other critical components to a football program’s success. Add that to the likelihood that unionization won’t prove a major draw from top talent, and you have the recipe for a Northwestern football record with more losses. (Northwestern was 28 and 23 over the last four years). And for that reason — “just win baby” — I won’t support unionization for my undergraduate team (Tulane).