The End of Big Time College Athletics?


For decades critics have lamented that big time college sports have a corrupting influence on college and university campuses. Big time sports push aside the educational goals of the university, recruit athletes to campus who have little interest or aptitude for learning, turn football and basketball coaches into national celebrities, and in general create a circus atmosphere on campus that is not conducive to study and learning. Though the critics make a good case, they have had little success in taming the athletic beast on campus.  The reasons are not hard to find:  many universities rake in millions of dollars every year from television contracts, ticket sales, and the sale of athletic merchandise.  In addition, success on the football field or basketball court attracts favorable publicity and ever more donations from alumni and benefactors.

After laboring for so many years without success, the critics may finally have hit the jackpot in a decision handed down the other day by a regional division of the National Labor Relations Board.  In a stunning decision, the NLRB ruled that football players at Northwestern University are in fact employees of the institution (like janitors or cafeteria workers) and are thus entitled to form a union to bargain over pay, health benefits, and working conditions.  In reaching this decision, NLRB took into account the many hours of work players must devote to practice compared to how much time they spend in study, the degree to which they are supervised by coaches, and the millions of dollars per year garnered by the institution from its football program.   The decision strikes at the heart of big time college sports based upon the claim that athletes are student amateurs who cannot be paid for their participation on college and university teams.

The decision will undoubtedly be appealed to the NLRB in Washington where President Obama’s pro-union appointees hold a majority.  If it is upheld, the ruling threatens to obliterate the major assumptions governing college sports and could even bring about the end of big time college athletics altogether.  Given the expense and liability of maintaining athletic programs on a semi-professional basis, many institutions will fold them up altogether and proceed with on-campus athletics on a club or recreational basis.

To be sure, there are many implications of this decision that have yet to be worked out.  The football players at Northwestern, who were assisted in their lawsuit by the United Steelworkers Union, are now eligible to form a union and begin negotiations with the university over pay, benefits, and playing conditions.  In that campaign, they will probably affiliate with the Steelworkers, thereby forcing the university to confront a formidable adversary in the bargaining process. Players at other institutions will undoubtedly begin to form their own unions, assisted no doubt by existing unions all too ready to move into this potentially lucrative field of operations.  The logic of the ruling could easily lead to an industry wide agreement whereby athletes across the country form a national union to bargain with a single employers association.  The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) currently enforces the rules of amateur competition on behalf of its institutional members.  Its operating assumptions and institutional role have been knocked into a cocked hat by this ruling, but one can see how it might eventually emerge as the national bargaining agent for university athletic programs.

There are other unknowns as well.  We do not know as yet if this ruling will extend beyond football to other college sports like basketball, tennis, baseball, lacrosse, track and field, and swimming. The logic of the ruling suggests that it will. Some have said that the ruling applies only to private institutions since employment conditions at public universities are governed by state rather than federal regulations.  But this distinction is unlikely to hold because it is likely that federal regulations will inevitably trump state laws in a field that so clearly operates in interstate commerce.

If for some reason the public-private distinction is upheld, then current conference configurations will have to be redrawn because private and public institutions now compete with one another in the same athletic conferences.   Northwestern, for example, is a member of the Big Ten conference which is made up of thirteen other public institutions; other prominent private schools, such as Stanford, Southern California, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College, Texas Christian, and many others, also compete in athletic conferences with public institutions.  It is inconceivable that unionized and non-unionized programs could ever compete with one another under common rules.   Under this ruling, those institutions will undoubtedly be forced to abandon current conference arrangements and form a national conference made up entirely of private institutions. Many traditional athletic rivalries will end.  Southern California will no longer play UCLA in football; nor will Stanford play Cal or Duke play North Carolina.   But this will mark just the beginning of a long running upheaval that will force a re-organization of college athletics.

This ruling comes down at a time when another case is working its way through the federal courts in which several former football and basketball players are suing their universities for a share of the proceeds from the sale of athletic merchandise.  In addition, several former athletes recently filed another lawsuit charging the NCAA of anti-trust violations for restricting the ability of member institutions to compete for player services.  The NCAA has long claimed that it is not a commercial enterprise and therefore not subject to anti-trust laws.  These cases, in combination with the NLRB ruling, may succeed in overturning the foundations of big-time college sports.

If the NLRB ruling is upheld, and the federal courts rule in favor of the athletes, many colleges and universities may have to abandon their big time athletic programs as far too costly and troublesome to sustain on a semi-professional basis. Will it be worth the trouble and expense to negotiate with the Teamsters or the Steelworkers’ unions to maintain current athletic programs?  Many will say “no.” There are various routes they could take.  Some may de-emphasize sports much as Ivy League schools did decades ago, and compete with one another without scholarships, spring practices, highly paid coaches, or lucrative television contracts.  Others may sponsor club teams as a means of encouraging athletic participation on a recreational basis.

A world without big time college sports is difficult to imagine, but we may be headed there. Who knows? In future years we may see the spectacle of football teams at Ohio State or the University of Alabama performing in 100,000 seat stadiums before a few hundred spectators and without television cameras, just as teams at Harvard, Yale, or Penn perform today in large stadiums built a hundred years ago before those institutions de-emphasized athletics.

There is a difference, of course. The Ivy League schools gave up big time sports on their own, while Ohio State, Alabama, and hundreds of other schools will be forced out of the field by judges and regulators who are unable to foresee the implications of their decisions.

(Photo: Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who led the charge for unionization. Credit: ThinkProgress/AP.)


  • James Piereson

    James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and president of the board of directors of Minding the Campus.

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4 thoughts on “The End of Big Time College Athletics?

  1. While the discussion focuses on the impact on college athletics, do the players actually understand what they’ve done? As employees, their scholarship/benefits are now considered taxable income – as will the requirement that they pay union dues.
    I have argued that the NFL and NBA have needed to create a minor league system (a la MLB) for many years – this may actually force that to occur.

  2. This a crisp analysis of what might well be one of the most momentous changes in higher education in years. If the NLRB ruling stands and players at other universities and other sports take advantage of it, the effect will reverberate through almost every aspect of higher education, not just the university budget. Do unionized employees of the football program have to attend classes or seek degrees? Are they subject to the regulations which apply to regular students? There is much to ponder here, and Mr. Piereson has done an excellent job of laying out the prospects.
    Peter Wood

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