Whoa, Nellie! Northwestern Football/NLRB Ruling a Game-Changer

Talk about game-changing plays…

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago ruled that Northwestern University’s football players are employees and can unionize.

Spearheaded by former quarterback/jack of all trades Kain Colter, the class action suit by the school’s football players was convincing enough to persuade the NLRB that those players are indeed school employees paid in the form of scholarships, working between 20 and 50 hours per week – and generating millions of dollars for the university.

Coming on the heels of last fall’s Time magazine cover story, this ruling clearly flips the field in the ongoing argument about major college athletes getting paid. While it only applies to athletes at private colleges, it has stunning across-the-board implications, laying the legal groundwork for much wider athlete unionization. If that happens, we will probably see drastic changes to the business of college athletics – resulting in everything from increased value of scholarships, concussion reform, improved medical coverage for athletes, athletes being allowed to accept endorsements, and even athlete salaries.

In the words of iconic college football announcer Keith Jackson, “WHOA, Nellie!”

I’m conflicted about all of this, as many college sports fans probably are. College athletics are intrinsically different (and I think more interesting) than professional sports, so why make them quasi-professional? Also, as a former (non-scholarship) college athlete, I like the quaint idea that the players are still students like everyone else, just another part of the overall campus scene. More ominously, I fear the potential repercussions if unionization does happen – Northwestern’s ex-president, for example, has said it could lead to schools like Northwestern, Duke and Stanford dropping football. As an NU alum, I’d certainly hate to see that.

Still, from a marketer’s perspective, it is hard to argue with the athletes. High-profile athletic successes have a direct benefit to the college. Recent NCAA basketball Cinderellas like Florida Gulf Coast, Butler and VCU, for example, all saw a huge surge in admissions the year after they danced in the national spotlight. The same holds true for football, and for Northwestern; the school saw a massive spike in applications after the Wildcats’ surprise run to the Rose Bowl in 1996.

Let’s face it, nationally televised events like the NCAA basketball tournament or football bowl games garner colleges publicity they could not otherwise afford and which they depend upon. In my opinion, D-I athletes in major revenue-producing sports are school employees – they work in the MARKETING DEPARTMENT!