Breaking News
Tommy Wood and Andrew Haubner provide the heads and tails of whether or not player unions are good for the college game.

The Coin Toss: Are collegiate player unions a good thing?

Welcome to the first official edition of The Coin Toss, where the CU Independent sports section will address and debate the heads and tails of contentious issues throughout the sports community.

Recently, a group of football players at Northwestern University submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago asking them to recognize the team as a union. The NLRB granted the request, resulting in a groundbreaking decision that could shake the foundations of collegiate athletics forever. The question is, is this a good thing?

CUI sports writers Andrew Haubner and Tommy Wood will break down the issue for you. 

Andrew Haubner: The preface is that all this is something the NCAA had coming to them. When student athletes are generating millions of dollars per year for universities and the NCAA but don’t receive any opportunity to truly profit, there are going to be problems. Still, giving athletes the opportunity to unionize is bad news for the NCAA and college sports as a whole.

While NCAA president Mark Emmert has essentially supported the idea of full-cost scholarships, there are serious implications to the recruiting process. Some schools, and I’m looking at the mid-majors here, just don’t have the money to attract top recruits in the same way schools like Alabama or Oregon can. What makes me nervous is the possibility of college football becoming something akin to European soccer, where the top four teams with the biggest wallets do best every year.

If you start treating student athletes like employees, they will start receiving better benefits. These benefits will not be in the form of “pay for play,” which I doubt will ever happen, but in the form of full medical coverage and true full-ride scholarships. According to a report by Ithaca College, a “full-ride” is actually, on average, $2951 short of what college actually costs. When you look at how far this unionizing could go for players, the possibility of a wealth gap looks all the more real.  

Tommy Wood:  It’s not a perfect system yet, but the NLRB made the right decision. College football players put in as much work during the season as professional athletes. The NLRB’s ruling spent five pages talking about the time commitment, which came out to be between 40 and 50 hours per week, including practice, film and lifting. That’s full-time labor.

This ruling would favor the bigger schools, but the NLRB only governs private schools. Alabama and Ohio State won’t be able to hold the promise of a true full-ride scholarship over a player’s head as enticement. That said, players still deserve more than they’re getting. Their athletic commitments don’t allow them time for a job, and their medical issues tend to be greater and more varied than those a campus clinic can treat.

AH: It is true that public universities are governed by state law, and unions would naturally be subject to those laws, but this reality does not negate players’ the right to unionize in the first place. At the end of the day, I’m worried about athletes being treated as employees.

If we think athletes are subject to strict rules and regulations by the NCAA and their schools now, what will happen when they are no longer viewed as “student athletes”? Is missing a practice a breach of contract; is that breach punishable in some way? These kids are treated as employees already, and I have a feeling rules would be even stricter if schools labeled them as such.

TW: Actually, it will be very hard for players to unionize in many places. 24 states, including Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma, have “right-to-work” laws, which severely hamper unions’ abilities to collectively bargain. Off the top of my head, I can think of 15 top-tier programs in those states that would likely escape having to treat their players as employees. Even if the schools in those states avoid de jure classification of their players as employees, it is still undoubtable that players work for their schools. 

Also, let’s be honest, the “student” part of “student athlete” is a joke. The NCAA puts out sickening amounts of propaganda (like those “most of us go pro in something other than sports” commercials) to show otherwise, but big-time college sports do not care about academics at all.

As far as missing practice, schools already punish players heavily. The NLRB’s ruling goes into great detail about how Northwestern players weren’t allowed to leave practice early to attend class and risked losing their scholarships if they did. If “student athlete” is truly a student first, then class time would be a priority.

AH: Ahh, now we’ve entered the crux of the argument with right-to-work laws. Let’s say schools such as Oregon, USC or Ohio State – they are all excluded from right-to-work states – allow their teams to unionize, promising them medical benefits and the ability to be looked at as employees. With these incentives, top recruits will naturally flock to these schools. Effectively, schools in right-to-work states would potentially lose recruits due to unions. In my opinion, this system would not go over well among football fans.

Then there is the historical pattern of unions leading to strikes. I agree that student athletes absolutely deserve better and are essentially used as free labor to profit the university and the NCAA. But letting them unionize will only fracture college athletics. And we’re not just talking about football! We haven’t even gotten into the implications unionizing could impose on other sports or how unions affect the discrimination-preventing amendments in Title IX. That’s definitely a conversation for another time.

TW: I doubt Alabama being a right-to-work state would keep the Crimson Tide down for long. Most of the SEC schools are in right-to-work states, but their athletic departments have deep pockets, and I’m sure they would be more than willing to rejigger their budget to give players comparable benefits.

Your concerns are valid, but we’re only weeks into what will be a years-long process. Yes, Title IX will be an issue. Yes, sports not attracting revenue will be an issue. But, people had similar worries when Curt Flood forced Major League Baseball into creating free agency in 1969 (“They can choose where to play? Oh, the humanity!”). It won’t be perfect, and the landscape of college sports is going to change drastically, but this is a change that needs to happen. The current system is terribly unfair to the players. It’s basically serfdom. Student athletes generate millions of dollars of revenue for schools they are beholden to, and in return they receive barely enough to survive.

To end, let’s reference the Big Dance.

Aaron Harrison’s cold-blooded dagger performance against Michigan last Sunday earned Kentucky’s coaches and athletic director $330,000 in bonuses. Harrison scored the points but did not get a cent. Plus, that number doesn’t even include the untold amount of Final Four merchandise and blue No. 2 jerseys Kentucky is probably already selling.

Like I said before, the system is not perfect, but at least players won’t be selling their souls to the NCAA.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writers Tommy Wood and Andrew Haubner at and

About andrew.haubner

Check Also

From left to right the front row of runners Deyja Enriquez, Emerson McKee, Gordon Ferris, Jacob Torres and Ryan Begin run with Ralphie during a practice on Nov. 2, 2016 at Folsom Field. (Anna Blanco/CU Independent)

Behind the run: The experience of being a Ralphie handler

The CUI details how much commitment it takes to be a Ralphie Runner, and how it is often unseen among the CU community. By Anna Blanco