A federal decision to allow Northwestern University football players to unionize will have little immediate impact on major universities like the University of Minnesota, but it could portend big changes down the road.
The decision “has huge implications,” said Steven Silton, a Minneapolis attorney who has worked with both professional athletes and sports franchises.
As important as the case may be, those familiar with it say its power comes in part because of what’s happening around it. It comes at a time when the college sports industry faces multiple lawsuits over issues such as player pay. The wave of developments, they say, is creating the idea that something needs to change.
Wednesday’s ruling was by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board. Northwestern has said it’s appealing the decision with the main body in Washington, and attorneys say Northwestern could try to fight the decision in court after that.
Attorneys say it could be take two to five years before the collegiate sports world gets a final answer.
The players are pushing Northwestern to cover sports-related medical bills for both current and former players, as well as enable players to get their own lucrative sponsorships.
The ruling comes at a time when athletes are demanding to get a cut of the multibillion-dollar college athletics industry. They say colleges enrich themselves from their work, and the scholarship money they give athletes doesn’t come close to compensating them.
Although the Northwestern case case is about a private institution, attorneys say the decision could make it possible to unionize at the University of Minnesota. Public-sector unions are present at the U, and an established union could help players there unionized as well.
But Minneapolis labor-law attorney Mark Mathison said Minnesota may not be the most fertile ground for organizing.
Unions often spring up because of a lack of trust between labor and management, he said, and U football coach Jerry Kill’s image “seems to be pretty high. … It appears to me he’s got a pretty good relationship with these players.”
Silton said the case doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of such a relationship — just the terms of it.
“These guys are [already] treated like employees,” Silton said. “They are employed on a one-year basis with renewal for additional years. They can be fired at any time. They can be discarded if they’re injured. … The changing issue is that they’re going to get paid, or if not receive cash, receive better representation and a better ability to negotiate better working conditions.”
Northwestern players are not asking to be directly paid, but want to be covered for their sports-related injuries both during and after their college career, as well as steps to reduce injuries such as concussions. They also want a shot at commercial sponsorships.
But Silton said it’s only a matter of time until pay became something they wanted to negotiate.
Just what they and unionizing athletes at other campuses would ask for — and how much it would cost universities — is up in the air, experts said.
They said the unionization movement would likely be confined to where the money is: money-making sports such as football, basketball — and to a limited extent — hockey.
Duke professor Charles Clotfelter, author of the book “Big-Time Sports at American Universities,” said the payouts would be a major expense for colleges, but he doubted they would be high enough to damage sports programs.
“I think the growth rate of coaches salaries might slow down,” he said.
Silton said some some colleges might be tempted to cut — or cut back on — some of the smaller, more expensive sports that don’t generate revenue.
“It could be that athletic scholarships for crew and women’s basketball are going to be cut,” said.
Attorney Mathison said that in the short term, news that a sports program is unionizing might turn off players who want to avoid complications.
But in the long term, he said, a good pay and benefits package might end up being a good recruiting tool.
Although University of Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague wouldn’t comment on the Northwestern case, he said in an emailed statement that athletes should have a “prominent voice” in discussions over issues such as the long-term health effects of college sports.