Illini athletes should not unionize


By Brad Barber

The history of unionization is about as feel-good as disgusting and dangerous working conditions. The “triumph” of the common-man over the corporate bosses at the labor table in the early 1900s signaled a change in American government and sense of fairness. 

This has developed over the past century to the point that gross misconduct of an employer is no longer necessary for a union uproar and possible government intervention — see the troubling Hostess dispute of 2012, where the bakery declared bankruptcy because of union disputes. 

Thus, there is now a possible Supreme Court battle over the unionization of college athletes. 

Despite the outcome of the ongoing and potentially upcoming legal battles, Illini athletes should not seek to unionize now or at the conclusion of this controversy, because payment of the athletes would not be realized. 

The current litigation involves football players at Northwestern University, which the National Labor Relations Board gave authorization to unionize, but the university says it has plans to appeal. 

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    The athletes and leaders of the Northwestern litigation claim the unionization effort is for better workplace conditions — such as new concussion protocols and injury coverage. But other than keeping profits made on the backs of athletes’ images and performances, there is no cry of foul play or mistreatment of the athletes (who would be called workers if they win the final rounds of litigation). 

    However, many think these demands will escalate into a pay-for-play discussion if the unionization is given the final green light.

    Unionization looks very appealing to student athletes because professionals earn roughly half of their respective sports’ revenue for essentially the same performance. Although college athletics are not as profitable as their professional counterparts, there would still be a substantial chunk of change to go around to the college athletes if this model were put in place.

    However, seeking unionization is unwise because the dispute over how much the athletes would be paid seems too difficult to produce a satisfying answer for all parties. Professional athletes get paid based on a market value, but there is currently no real market for college athletes other than waived tuition costs and access to campus facilities and training. And any purely financial market sought to be created in order to pay athletes “their half” would be difficult to define because of donations and the impact of alumni, among other factors. 

    FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik points out that applying the “half the revenue” model used in professional sports is unlikely. 

    Professional profits generally are highly related to winning and the players that the team brings in. Collegiate gains are more closely tied to blind loyalty to the program or fans’ fond memories of the programs’ alumni. Winning — or the athletes — are not nearly as important for collegiate revenues as they are for professional franchises. 

    If fans go to athletic events because of the program’s history, as Bialik claimed, then collegiate athletes’ arguments for revenues could be extended to alumni claims for payments each year. 

    If some alumni get paid, then would all alumni get paid? Or would some get paid more or less than others? This is another tangled mess that would have to be decided either in the current litigation (which is not focused on it because it is centered on the use of athletes’ likeness in video games) or in subsequent litigation if unions are successful. 

    Past and current behaviors of the NCAA indicate that if colleges are required to pay athletes, then colleges would use this alumni factor, the cost of training and the cost of facilities to negate the pay of athletes to little or nothing. Meanwhile, the value of the things that athletes receive — the cost of tuition, training, etc. — would be taxable by the government, which could wipe out earnings for students or result in athletes owing money.

    Colleges wouldn’t have to do this, having the option to pay students what they deemed a fair share — realizing the pay. However, because they have resisted doing so thus far and are openly contesting the option currently, this seems unlikely.

    An attempt to unionize by Illini athletes, even if it were following positive precedent set by the current litigation, would likely result in little to no gains for the students themselves. Such a victory, if it happened, would largely be a moral or symbolic victory and would be a hassle to get.

    The NCAA may not be correct in its decision to forbid payments to athletes — college athletes deserve more of a share. However a path to achieve fairness for athletes will not be found through unionization.

    Brad is a graduate student in Law. He can be reached at [email protected] or @b_rad_barber.