College athletes will get paid. It's just a matter of time after NLRB memo.

·6 min read

Here’s how college sports change forever.

At some point over the next several months, a labor union will engage with a group of football players at a prominent private school like Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Stanford or Boston College and encourage them to rally support for unionization within the team. Enough players will sign union cards to take them to the nearest National Labor Relations Board regional office.

There will probably be pushback from the school to the idea of unionization, so a hearing will take place. The NLRB’s regional director will rule in favor of the athletes’ right to form a union, designating them as employees.

After the various appeals and challenges, and a secret ballot vote with enough players voting for unionization, the NLRB board in Washington, D.C., will ultimately recognize that college athletes have collective bargaining rights. When that happens, the same process will take place at other private schools, which will be forced to negotiate with players on issues like health care benefits and revenue sharing.

And then, when it becomes clear the unionized programs have a recruiting advantage over public schools, state legislatures even in conservative, anti-union states will begin to figure out how to change their laws so that their athletes can be part of the movement. Eventually, the last wall of amateurism that the NCAA has tried for decades to uphold — direct payments to college athletes — will come tumbling down.

“In general, I’d say we’re in the red zone finally,” said former University of Minnesota regent Michael Hsu, who sits on the volunteer advisory board of the College Football Players Association, a group that advocates for unionization as a pathway to greater rights for college athletes. “This is kind of the spark we needed to let the players know they really do have rights and they should be thinking bout them.”

The spark came Wednesday in the form of a memo from Jennifer Abruzzo, newly appointed by President Biden to be the NLRB’s lead attorney. In the memo, Abruzzo states that college athletes are employees, not “student-athletes,” and makes clear that she will support any effort by athletes to “act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment” if brought to the NLRB.

Though the memo itself doesn’t immediately change college sports — it doesn’t even guarantee that the NLRB would rule favorably on a unionization effort — the climate has changed significantly since 2015 when the NLRB handed the NCAA a victory by rejecting efforts to unionize the Northwestern football team.

NCAA should have heard final toll on amateurism with release of NLRB memo.
NCAA should have heard final toll on amateurism with release of NLRB memo.

Even then, the NLRB’s decision didn’t really strike down the merits of unionizing or say that college athletes aren’t employees. Instead, the NLRB showed deference to NCAA rules, reasonably concluding that a unionized football team playing non-unionized football teams would be pretty disruptive for college sports.

While the NCAA applauded the decision, it was a Pyrrhic victory. In reality, all the NLRB did was punt until the politics of the moment were different. And boy have they ever changed in the last six years.

“Today is just one step in a long National Labor Relations Board process, but it’s indicative of the body politic shifting,” said Tom McMillen, the president and chief executive of the Lead1 Association that represents the 130 FBS athletics directors. “There are a lot of ramifications to this that have to be sorted out, but it fundamentally alters the landscape of college sports if it goes to an employee model. Hopefully there’s a step short of that that can be compromised.”

But for advocates of college athletes rights, where’s the incentive to compromise? Right now, the NCAA hasn’t just been stripped of power and moral authority over college sports, it has more or less abdicated any regulatory responsibility over to the schools.

For all the hue and cry we heard from NCAA president Mark Emmert and conference commissioners about needing a national law to govern name, image and likeness rights, we’re seeing now that it isn’t particularly necessary.

For the last few months, college athletes from coast to coast have been making deals and earning money without significant regulations aside from those imposed by their own campuses. The doomsday predictions of uncontrollable chaos haven’t come to fruition. And based on the strong television ratings from early in the football season, fans aren’t turned off in the least because the quarterback of their team is driving a nice car or selling chicken fingers on Twitter.

Amateurism isn’t just over, it should be obvious by now that it was never part of what made college sports popular.

And just like NIL, which started with a push by the California legislature and spread like wildfire in states that didn’t want to get left behind, unions will become a lot more palatable when schools that have them are able to offer better deals to recruits.

Obviously, there are a lot of steps from here to there — and a ton of unanswered questions along the way. Would there be a national college athletes’ union, or would each program have one that negotiated individually with the school? Would different sports have different unions, or would they be under the same umbrella? How would Title IX factor in when you’re negotiating with athletes in revenue-generating sports vs. non-revenue sports?

Nobody can predict exactly how it will shake out, but the Abruzzo memo Wednesday can only be read as an invitation for unions and advocacy groups to start the process of organizing college football and basketball teams.

“It’s basically a land grab at this point, starting today,” Hsu said. “It’ll be a big fight, who’s going to be the union to represent the first school because it’s a potential expansion of market for them.”

The NCAA should have realized long ago that a lot of its problems could be solved through collective bargaining. Instead of bringing athletes to the table and working out how to share the wealth just like the NBA and NFL do with their player unions, the NCAA spent tens of millions of dollars in legal fees and wasted a decade on trying to prevent them from seeing a cent of the revenue they help generate.

With various lawsuits and legislative proposals in the works, there could be a pathway toward some type of collective bargaining arrangement before any case ever reaches the NLRB. “Theoretically, they could even get revenue sharing in some way and be codified as not employees, and that would kind of end all this,” McMillen said. “The student rights activists and lawyers pushing employment won’t be satisfied with that, but it could be a much more modern model and preserve college sports as we know it.”

But is there any leadership left in the NCAA to steer it toward pragmatic decisions without first getting stomped on by some arm of the government? Up until now, the NCAA has allowed itself to be at the mercy of political inertia, which is no longer interested in propping up amateurism.

What the NLRB set in motion Wednesday should make that clear to everyone in college sports. Whether they get that message — or can do anything about it — remains to be seen.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College athletes will be paid as employees. It's just matter of time.