Not surprisingly, NCAA president Mark Emmert said again Friday that unions could be a doomsday scenario for the current structure of college sports.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern players were employees of the school and had the right to unionize. The players are set to vote on April 25 while the school appeals the decision to the NLRB's national office.
But as Emmert discussed the impact a "yes" vote from the Northwestern players could have on ESPN's Mike and Mike morning show Friday, he brought up issues that haven't had anything to do with the current debate about collegiate athletic reform. (You can listen to the entire interview here.)
"If you take students and you turn them into employees, in the simplest of worlds, you’re turning from higher education law to labor law," Emmert said. "And now we wouldn’t have to talk about insurance because they’d be covered by workman’s compensation. And I guess that’s a good thing, but we wouldn’t be dealing with it. So that would relieve one headache but now you’ve got do deal with really interesting things. Like what would it look like for age discrimination suits.
"So if I’m no longer recruiting a kid to play football for me but I’m hiring a kid to play football for me, why would I hire an 18-year-old? Why wouldn’t I get someone out of the Canadian league, why wouldn’t I get somebody who is no longer in the NFL? And if you finish your three years or four years, you’re not going to play in the league but you want to keep playing at a university, you can’t fire me. Why are you firing me? Because I’m old? You can’t fire me, I’m 22."
Emmert previously called union efforts a "grossly inappropriate solution."
There has been nothing in the Northwestern ruling that impacts the eligibility window for college athletes. In fact, it hasn't even been brought up until now. The unionization efforts have been centered around better benefits for players while they're in school. Not for the right to stay in school past current eligibility guidelines and playing college football for an infinite amount of time.
Bringing the NCAA's complicated eligibility guidelines into the equation changes the current debate immensely. He also didn't stop there.
"So it completely changes that dynamic and it completely changes the whole nature of the relationship between a coach and a player," Emmert continued. "So now they’re employees, they’re not students, they’re not coaches and a teacher and a mentor. He’s now an employee. He’s now your boss. It completely messes up all of the the 'olympic and non-revenue sports,' right? because you can’t have it in one place. Your daughter is a swimmer I bet she puts in as much time as a football player. "
(ESPN host Mike Golic's daughter is a swimmer at Notre Dame.)
"OK, so the relationship’s the same. So she’s going to be unionized, because you can’t say the football guys can be and she can’t be. You’d have every football team, because the bargaining unit according to the NLRB is the football team at Northwestern, you’d have 125 different football teams each with their own unions, each negotiating separately, not one union. In the south they don’t allow public unions, so I guess they’d be scab labor. It would completely blow up the collegiate model.
"If what we want to do is fix all of the problems that are out there, of which there are plenty, that's the wrong answer."
Does anyone really not think the head coach of a college football team really isn't already in the role of a boss? Coaches have the final say in everything from playing time to scholarships, much like the supervisor of a company has when determining work roles. And besides, many bosses in a traditional workplace sense also serve as teachers and mentors. It's not an idea exclusive to college sports.
Emmert also glossed over one crucial fact in the Northwestern case. Since Northwestern is a private university, the NLRB ruling only applies to them. Other union efforts at state universities would be subject to state labor laws. Plus, 24 states in the United States – including many in the south – are right-to-work states, which means that employees in certain sectors aren't required to pay union dues to be employed.
Simply because Northwestern could potentially unionize doesn't mean that every other school in FBS will follow suit. A final decision on appeals in the Northwesern case could take months, if not years, and any successive efforts at other schools wouldn't be expedited either.
The possibility of unions may not be the answer to collegiate athletic reform, but rather a starting point. However, most everyone outside of the NCAA's offices and school administration buildings can agree that the system is not a "fabulous" one like Emmert said it was on Friday. It needs changing, and the discussions on how to change it need to be held in reality.
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