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Road ahead for college football players union isn't an easy one

The obstacles members of the Northwestern University Wildcats football team face on the road to forming a union are formidable.

First,  there are a myriad of legal questions that need to be answered, such as is there an employer/employee relationship that exists between the players and the Evanston, Ill. school that meets the criteria set by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

Northwestern, not surprisingly, argues that such a relationship doesn't exist. Whether the players can make such a claim against the NCAA, which seems to be the focus of their wrath and also is opposed to their efforts, also is unclear. The players, though, do have the backing of the NFL Players Association, the union that represents their counterparts in the pros.

"Most of the grievances cited by the players concern the NCAA as a monopolistic cartel that wields unbalanced and unreasonable labor market power against the players in terms of compensation and scholarship limitations among other issues," writes Vanderbilt University Economist John Vrooman, a former college football player who studies the economics of sports, in an email. "The issue here is that the NCAA is clearly a cartel but it is not necessarily the employer."

The other obstacle facing the players affiliated with the National College Football Players Association is a practical one. Since members of the team graduate, creating a cohesive bargaining unit will be difficult if have to frequently recruit new members. That's one of the reasons why efforts to unionize teaching assistants on college campuses have faltered.

Indeed, the battle over whether TAs can bargain collectively has raged on for years. As Inside Higher Education noted, the NLRB has issued contradictory rulings on the topic. In a 2000 case involving New York University and the United Auto Workers (UAW), the NLRB allowed unionization only to reverse itself four years later in a case involving Brown University. A year later, NYU withdrew its recognition of the UAW, which led to a TA strike that failed because of lack of support

The second NYU unionization push began in 2011. A regional NLRB official rejected the new petition but after it was appealed to the full board, the NLRB decided to review its 2004 case. Meanwhile, NYU and the UAW struck a deal at the end of last year that could lead to at least some graduate assistants being recognized.

Even so, the Northwestern case raises many serious issues for the NCAA about the economics of college football, particularly at elite Division I teams. According to Vrooman, only about 53 of the 2,000 or so college sports programs in the U.S. are profitable.  The fortune few make tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, a report released last year by the National College Players Association found that 86 percent of student athletes live in poverty. The NCAA recorded a record surplus of $71 million in 2012. During that same time, its net assets were more than $566 million, about double where they were at the end of the 2006 school year. 

"The real issue ultimately derives from the NFLs exploitation of (the) amateur intercollegiate football system for its minor league player development system," Vrooman says, adding that the National Basketball Association is in a similar situation with college basketball.

"Logistics and legal issues aside, the collectivization of college athletes is not altogether out of the question. The NFL and the NCAA have both been found guilty in Federal Court of behaving as unlawful cartels in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act."

But Vrooman notes that Marvin Miller faced the same obstacles in 1966 when the Major League Baseball Players Association was formed. Two years later, the union negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement in sports.

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