On April 25, the Northwestern University football team cast historic ballots on whether or not to form the first union of college athletes. The results of that vote are still unknown, but the players have created the possibility for organized labor to enter college athletics in the near future.
The student-athletes were granted status as employees of Northwestern on March 26 by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago. Northwestern University is currently appealing that decision to the NLRB in Washington, D.C., and the players' election results will remain unknown until a final ruling. If the NLRB upholds the regional ruling that football players are employees, athletes at other private schools—which are subject to federal labor laws—will also be free to form unions. (Fault Lines examines the Northwestern effort, as well as other challenges to the status quo in college football, in the film "State of Play: Fotball Players and the NCAA," airing Saturday, June 21, at 7 pm EST.)
Meanwhile, bargaining rights for college athletes at public universities are determined by the states. Some states, like Florida, guarantee public employees the right to organize. Others, like Alabama, provide no protections for public employees who want to form unions — effectively prohibiting any such effort.
Benefits bargained for by unions at some schools could give those institutions a leg up in recruiting student-athletes. Long-term health care and other perks could sway some prospective players to attend one school over another that can't offer similar packages. There is, however, a limit to what these unions could potentially bargain for.
"I think that no union would bargain for something that would be out of compliance with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)," said Robert McCormick, a labor law professor at the Michigan State University College of Law. Violating those provisions, such as allowing athletes to endorse products, would bar a school from competing with other universities in NCAA-sanctioned events.
Two recent graduates of the UC Berkeley School of Law, Nick Fram and Thomas Frampton, wrote an article published in 2012 in the Buffalo Law Review, which examined the prospects student-athletes might have organizing in each of the country's 50 states. They studied legal precedents and tests to determine whether a college athlete had a good chance of being considered an employee of the state while also being a full-time student. Most often, the closest corollary is a state's treatment of graduate assistants, who are working towards advanced degrees while also teaching classes.
Interestingly, states like Alabama, Texas and Georgia, where college football is often considered a religion and where recruiting is ultra-competitive, are some of the least favorable for unions. If collective bargaining begins to catch on in Football Bowl Subdivision programs (the highest level of college football), schools in these states could suddenly see their ability to recruit big-time prospects diminish. Frampton, now a lawyer practicing in Brooklyn, said that fans could soon call their local officials to change state labor laws: "I think that's going to put a huge amount of pressure on legislators to alter their public union rules—depending on how much they care about college sports."
Interactive Map: Can Your Favorite College Football Team Unionize?
Data taken from "A Union of Amateurs: A Legal Blueprint to Reshape Big-Time College Athletics," published in Buffalo Law Review (2012) by Nicholas Fram and T. Ward Frampton. (NOTE: Service academies, such as United States Air Force Academy, not included on map.)
The Fault Lines investigation into college sports, "State of Play: Football Players and the NCAA," re-airs on Al Jazeera America on Saturday, August 30, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern and Sunday, August 31, at 2 a.m. Eastern.