Jenkins: College union would hurt more athletes than it would help

Sally Jenkins

A union is a large-tool solution for workers who share common interests and injustices. It only seems like the right tool and remedy for NCAA athletes until you start weighing whether it would actually create economic opportunities and benefits for more players than it would destroy. It’s the wrong tool for this job.

Any useful discussion of unionization in college sports has to start with an acknowledgement that athletes need leverage against the NCAA’s pocket-lining administrators. What former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and his allies are after in asking the National Labor Relations Board for the right to unionize is a crowbar. The problem is that their crowbar wouldn’t provide leverage to fix what’s wrong. It would just create a lot of splintered wreckage for thousands of scholarship athletes who would have to live with the adverse implications of being called “labor.”

The inequities in college athletics are complex and nuanced; no one solution fits all. First of all, a union wouldn’t have the right to collectively bargain anything with the NCAA. No one ever mentions that. The NCAA is not an employer. It’s just a flawed bureaucracy, the kind that makes stupid rules that send Shabazz Napier to bed hungry.

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The real issue is this: A relatively small number of high-profile athletes, isolated in football and men’s basketball, help generate immense revenues for their schools, without getting fair treatment or full value from their scholarships because of the cultures of their sports, which have weak connections to classrooms.

A regional NLRB director used these grounds to rule last month that Colter and his fellow Northwestern football players are “employees” and thus union-eligible; Northwestern is appealing the decision. But a victory would give Colter and his teammates only the right to bargain with Northwestern, a private school. It wouldn’t address or redress larger systemic issues – though the case has created some public pressure for the NCAA, which was embarrassed into relaxing the meals rule after Connecticut guard Napier complained there were nights he went to bed “starving.”

All of this leads to a larger question: Does this small number of high-profile athletes really represent the best interest of all? Colter is the headliner for an advocacy group named College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which claims about 17,000 Division I members. But more than 150,000 athletes compete in more than 20 sports, at hundreds of schools, each with different requirements, budgets and standards. Almost none of these athletes generate revenue; almost all of them have extremely strong connections to academics. All told, there are 460,000 athletes competing at various levels in the NCAA.

Colter and his fellow activists, who are seeking to unionize all of college sports, only seem representative because their appeal is such a broadly emotional one, based on a viscerally disgusting fact that while revenues in football and basketball are swelling, athletes are locked out of direct financial participation. NCAA revenue approaches $1 billion annually, some coaches are making $5 million a year, and athletic directors get bonuses based on the sweat of the athletes – but Johnny Manziel can’t even profit from his own likeness under the rules.

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Lots of people want to give CAPA and Colter an A for this argument, and for taking their classroom education on labor relations into the real world. They aren’t after money, Colter says, but justice on issues such as medical care and academic fraud. But I give them a D, because despite the good intentions, there is an inherent, buried selfishness at the heart of the argument. The cold fact is, any collective bargaining gains for football players would come at the expense of non-revenue athletes, a fact they either don’t grasp or totally fail to acknowledge.

As commentator George Leef remarked in a recent analysis in Forbes, “Whatever marginal gains collective bargaining might bring for the players must come at the expense of other parts of the university community.”

What this means is, the likely effect of a union on your local campus would be: take from one set of deserving, hard-working athletes and students, and redistribute their resources to another set. It would mean de-funding sports such as track, tennis, swimming, women’s basketball, rowing.

So, let’s ask again: Is the quest to unionize really for the mutual benefit and broader interest of all college athletes? The answer – the awkward, uncomfortable answer – is no. In fact, football players are already economically subsidized better than most of their athlete peers. Their lack of consciousness of this, and their unstated assumption that they somehow work harder and are more deserving than, say, Olympic-caliber wrestlers or softball players, borders on offensive.

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It’s nice to fantasize that unionization would force schools to do away with overpaid deputy athletic directors, instead of cutting women’s golf. Or that it would force them to wrench away part of a coach’s $3 million salary and use it for MRI exams of players’ ankles. Or better yet seize NCAA President Mark Emmert’s $1.7 million salary and use it to extend football scholarships for life. But the more probable result is that unionization would kill scholarships, open athletes to taxation, and create other forms of collateral damage. The real gains would go to the United Steelworkers union, which backs this argument, in the form of dues from college kids.

Athletes deserve a cut, and a voice, and the NCAA won’t grant them those without being forced. But there is a better form of leverage than unionization. You want to cap coaching and athletic director salaries so member schools have more money to devote to athlete welfare? That’s going to take an antitrust lawsuit, not a union. The Ed O’Bannon class action case is a promising example: It would end NCAA restrictions on athletes profiting from their likeness and images, and force schools to redistribute that merchandising income.

A union is a great tool for fighting for living wages and safe, decent working conditions. But it’s the wrong tool to get at the NCAA.

Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at Read the Business Press’ April 7 profile of her father, legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins, at