Questions abound after ruling on union

On a recent exam in my sports business class, we were asked to answer only one question on the entire test: What would happen if student-athletes were paid? Though the actual prompt was a little more nuanced, that was the gist of it. My answer was — and is — that it would be logistically impossible to do so.

This anecdote is especially relevant in light of yesterday’s decision by the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board that college athletes could legally unionize.

Back in late January, a multitude of Northwestern football players, in conjunction with an organization called the College Athletes Players Association, filed to the NLRB to be formally recognized as members of a union.

Union members are, by definition, employees, and legally entitled to compensation. The NLRB found yesterday that student-athletes did in fact meet their definition of “employee.”

Naturally, Northwestern and the NCAA released statements saying that they are “disappointed” or “strongly disagree” or whatever — who actually cares? Northwestern has also said it plans to appeal the Chicago District’s decision to the NLRB’s national office in Washington, D.C., and, as you can imagine, whatever that office decides will simply be appealed to a federal court and it will be years before anything actually comes of this.

Still, this step should not go unnoticed. It is disappointing that student-athletes had to resort to legal action in the first place to obtain what are seemingly fundamental privileges of a scholarship. The compensation that Northwestern football players and the CAPA seek is not monetary, but rather better medical protection, funding for players to finish their education after their NCAA eligibility expires and scholarships that actually cover the full cost of attendance at a university. I support those requests wholeheartedly.

But there is a big difference between a full scholarship and actual monetary compensation for players. And the issue is that this opens Pandora’s box. I sincerely hope the CAPA succeeds in winning what it currently demands. But it’s only logical that after that comes actual salaries, and that I cannot endorse.

Imagine the potential ramifications of that. I’m not talking about the NCAA and its member schools having to restructure their business models and their budget, or the effects it might have on sponsorship or media. They can all deal.

I’m talking about the athletes themselves. Just who would get paid? Only those athletes on revenue-producing teams? That might seem logical, but imagine how that would work with Title IX (it wouldn’t). Is it fair to pay members of the football team more than the swim team? Seemingly so, but I doubt members of the swim team would think so. This would be an issue even within teams: Should the starting quarterback get paid more than the fourth-string tailback?

Would the payment differ by school? If it’s a percentage of revenue, say goodbye to parity in college athletics. Texas could probably pay a single player more than Cal’s entire roster combined.

As implausible as it sounds, payment of college athletes would actually spark more political and social debate than it does now. Schools would be faced with lawsuits until the end of time over “fair” compensation. It’s not difficult to imagine Congress getting involved at some point, as they did with steroids in baseball, and it’s even less difficult to imagine the issue ending up in the Supreme Court.

There is simply no limit to the ripple effects of paying college athletes. No matter how many bright minds you stuck together to figure out how it might work, they couldn’t cover even half of the bases.

What Northwestern and the CAPA are doing is, for the time, right. A full scholarship should be a full scholarship — it shouldn’t leave players hungry at night. But I do fear for what their quest could lead to: anarchy in college athletics.


Nick Burton is a senior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “Any Given Saturday,” runs Thursdays, ironically. To comment on this story, visit or email Nick at


2 replies
  1. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    At the time I saw this on TV, the network’s legal reporter commented that permitting unionization would apply only to private schools like Northwestern, USC, Stanford, Notre Dame and so on. This division, if it comes to that, would have unpredictable effects, presumably better for some schools and athletes, worse for others. We can only speculate now, but if you think about it, a number of different results will occur to you.

  2. Cynthia Luse-McKeen
    Cynthia Luse-McKeen says:

    Author should know that, in the case of Northwestern players, a full scholarship didn’t leave the players “hungry at night” – read the full decision for details on their scholarship/living stipends, etc.

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