The NLRB Ruling in the Northwestern Case Is Not Cause for Celebration. Here's Why

Matt Marton-USA; TODAY Sports

The ruling for Northwestern students might not survive appeal. But if it does, the fallout could be a lot more chaotic and disappointing than you think

I was in college before I went to a Major League Baseball game. It wasn't supposed to be like that. When I was 14 years old, my father got free tickets from his employer for a game between the Braves -- the closest team to Huntsville, Ala., where I lived at the time -- and the Cubs, the team I grew up loving because of Harry Caray and Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson on WGN.

But the summer after I turned 14 was 1994. And a series of negotiations that I didn't understand at the time was taking place between baseball owners and the players. And because the tickets my father held were to a game that fell after that year's strike began, we never got to go.

So forgive me if I don't take part in the celebratory coverage that has, in many corners, greeted the ruling by a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board that football players at Northwestern University are allowed to form a union. I've been on the other side of what's going to inevitably happen if the players are successful. And when you're a 14-year-old boy who wants to go to his first MLB game, you don't really care about the intricacies of labor law. All you know is that something you've wanted for most of your life has been snatched away from you.

* * *

My hesitance about the ruling, of course, doesn't just come from that 19-year-old memory. It has some of its roots in that -- seeing a sport you love torn apart by greed is something that you never really overcome -- but it also goes a lot deeper than that, both because of labor unions in general and because of what this one represents in particular.

The specific first, and then the general. Most of the demands that the students at Northwestern are making are, as defenders have said, reasonable. But when Jason Kirk -- a colleague that I personally know and like -- says that in a sweeping way that then player's entire list is "modest and agreeable," that's stretching things. (And that's even if one assumes that the union will stay true to what Kain Colter and his fellow organizers want, which is no sure thing.)

To be clear, the vast majority of the player's demands are not just modest and agreeable -- they're urgent reforms for college football. Safety and better measures to protect players? A must. Scholarships that cover something closer to the true cost of attendance? Called for them before they were cool. Academic reform? Keeping coaches from using some of the more creative roster management practices? Not just desirable, but necessary.

But there are two that don't strike me as modest or agreeable: The dismantling of amateurism and a call for an end to bowl bans. We don't have to go round-on-round here about whether university should pay players, because that's not what's being demanded.

Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.

First, college players are not banned from having jobs. (At least not because of the NCAA rules; it's legitimate to point out questions about whether players would have time for a job in addition to their athletics duties.) College players cannot be employed solely because of or to take advantage of their status on the team, but they can hold jobs.

However, the players involved want to make money off their likenesses (which doesn't sound that unreasonable). Setting aside the "we don't want to argue about eligibility" case for doing away with these rules -- not wanting to argue about something is not a reason to get rid of a rule -- we're left with a case that boils down to what's best for a select group of student-athletes and what's best for the game.

The overarching problems with this are actually glaringly obvious. Do you want agents to be able to pay players $100,000 or $200,000 a year during their playing career? If so, what makes you think that the player is going to listen to a coach over the person who's paying them if (when) a conflict arises? If not, is it the amount or the agent paying it or some of both? Or do you think that it should only be for legitimate marketing purposes or other employment? Whatever the reason, you're going to need a "bureaucracy whose only purpose is to guard against its own erosion" if you don't want the Wild West.

The larger issue is that this would be the final and irrevocable break between BCS schools and all the rest. Even if we take out the difference between boosters' ability to pay, the marketability of players at big-time universities is going to be higher than the marketability of players at a MAC or Sun Belt school. The Jadeveon Clowneys and Tim Tebows of the world would do fine. But who thinks that Dan LeFevour would have gotten anything other than the smallest of marketing deals?

A top-tier recruit's list of reasons to go to a mid-major would shrink if this were allowed. Right now, there are still a few reasons to go to a smaller college, in part because NFL scouts are still likely to pay attention to the best players from those conferences. But if you attach significant financial reward to going to a BCS school instead of a mid-major, you've just gutted the roughly half of college football institutions that don't fall in those conferences.

The other demand from the players that I take some exception to is the one dealing with postseason bans.

Prohibit the punishment of college athletes that have not committed a violation.

I'll let Jason set up the other side of the argument.

Another controversial proposal, since the NCAA's only recourse against people that break its rules has been to bomb entire programs. Some people like seeing entire institutions and communities get punished for rule-breakers, damn the collateral damage.

This gets back to something I wrote about the Penn State situation almost two years ago, but have never gotten the chance to fully explain. I talked a lot in that article about the "culture" problem that plagued Penn State, and the word "culture" has been derided by those who sometimes mistake dismissing certain words for debate.

In many, though not all, of the case that the NCAA gets involved in, some of the other people who get punished beyond coaches are not "collateral damage." They're co-conspirators. Joe Paterno did not engage in a massive and disgusting cover-up in a vacuum. He did so because of a "a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization," to use one Merriam-Webster definition of culture. He did so because Paterno's status within Penn State had grown to the point where he thought he could and probably should get away with the cover-up. And key members of the institution and community helped create that mindset.

Corruption never takes place in a vacuum. Sure, show-causes could be more effective. But you can only show-cause a coach. You can't hit a booster with a show-cause. And you can't hit the hundreds of members of the community who might have known something about under-the-table payments or worse, and kept quiet.

Yes, blunt instruments are blunt. But sometimes they're the only instruments that can do the job.

* * *

The biggest problem with players forming a union, though, gets back to what happened to me when I was 14 years old. Because the main reason to form a union is the ability to call a strike.

That's the ultimate tool that unions have at their disposal. In many cases, it's the only reason why large corporations negotiate: To keep the workforce from walking out.

And history has shown us that the ability to strike, at least in sports, leads to a strike. All four professional sports have lost regular-season games to strikes in the era of player unions. What makes college football different?

The situation is further confused by the issue of who, precisely, the players would negotiate with. The NCAA is not like the MLB, the NFL or the like; it does not exercise the degree of control over its members that professional sports leagues do. The NLRB ruling found that the players were employees of Northwestern, not the NCAA.

So Northwestern's administration would be tasked with negotiating the players' demands. But on the off chance that Northwestern agrees to the players' proposal on amateurism, the end is not likely to be Northwestern athletes getting money from endorsements and playing football. What would most likely happen would be Northwestern players getting money from endorsements and being ruled ineligible by the NCAA.

If there are enough schools that have unions, though, they could change the NCAA rules, right? Technically, yes. But there would still be obstacles. First, state-run colleges will not be affected by the final NLRB decision, meaning there are only a handful of NCAA schools that could be unionized this way.

And public and private schools in right-to-work states, where starting a union tends to be harder, would actually gain a competitive edge by keeping the rules the way they are. The Big 12, the SEC and some schools in the ACC could tie their counterparts in other parts of the country in knots by preventing change.

But let's pretend that every school in the nation has a unionized football team, and the NCAA rules were changed to accommodate the players' demands. Who negotiates with whom is still significant. Do the schools do it? Then what happens if, say, the players at Northwestern decide to strike? Does Northwestern forfeit the games they would have played? Are members of the student body drafted to be replacement players, bringing to mind Cumberland's game against Georgia Tech?

Even if the conferences take over, there's still a chance for the B1G to impacted by strikes while the Pac-12 plays on. Or, coming back to something closer to reality, for only those teams who are unionized to strike while the others aren't affected. And even if every player were to join the same union, could there be any one body that would negotiate for the universities? Would you trust the NCAA to do it? The commissioners, a group that spent 20 years trying to come up with any way it could to avoid a four-team playoff?

College football, as many have pointed out, is not as neat and tidy an entity as Major League Baseball or the NFL. It's a chaotic collection of schools and conferences, each with different interests and competing agendas. There's no reason to think that labor negotiations would be any less chaotic. But, in that case, it would not be the kind of anarchy that makes college football enjoyable. It would be chaos that would interfere with when and whether games would be played.

If you liked all the contractual and fiduciary discussions about conference realignment, you're going to love organized labor in college football. Especially when the first strike comes. Just hope you're not one of the ones who has to explain it to a 14-year-old looking forward to his or her first college football game.

* * *

Again, I'm sympathetic to the vast majority of what the players want to accomplish. And the young men who actually play the game should have a seat at the table. But I can't help but think that, particularly if the college presidents would do something proactive and constructive, there's a better way to fix most of the issues confronting our sport. A way that doesn't lead to disrupted seasons and disappointed fans.

The union might be the wave of the future in college football. But it's not a future that I look forward to. No matter how much some would like to pretend that it's a much easier and more elegant solution than it is.

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