Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich grew up in Alliquipa, Pa., with a blue-collar background from the Western part of the state -- what he described as an area heavy with labor unions. He wonders how student-athletes who unionize are going to pay their union dues.
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, meanwhile, lives in one of 24 states with right-to-work laws, which limits public employees from unionizing -- and would make it far more difficult for the football team to unionize, too.
Suddenly, these two distinctly different perspectives are relevant to college athletics.
On Wednesday, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize. It’s a monumental decision that can change the face of college athletics, and one that opens a Pandora’s Box of questions, problems and possibilities. For now, the ruling is confined to private schools -- five of which reside in the ACC (Boston College, Duke, Miami, Syracuse and Wake Forest). While the immediate impact is of a narrow scope, the long-term effects of the ruling could give players the right to collectively bargain with schools in the same way professional athletes bargain for benefits.
Prior to Wednesday’s decision, ESPN.com interviewed every athletic director in the ACC about various national issues facing college athletics, including the possibility of player unionization and what it could mean not only to the sport of football, but to the entire structure of the NCAA. All but two of them spoke on the record about the topic of unionization.
All of them raised poignant questions that nobody seems to have an answer for right now -- including if schools would have to set salary guidelines that differ for a first-team quarterback and a third-team quarterback, and how Title IX factors into the decision. Many of them agreed that the student-athletes need more of a voice in college athletics, but this isn’t the way to go about getting it. None of them pretended to be experts on the topic, and like many observers throughout the country, are simply trying to grasp the breadth of the possible implications.
This week’s decision, though, is likely to prompt an even closer look at the issue.
North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham pointed out the effect it could have on the entire university -- not just athletic programs.
“It will change the face of the university,” Cunningham said. “Student-athletes aren’t the only ones who are receiving scholarships and performing work on the campus. You’ve got graduate assistants doing research; you have all kinds of student involvement in different capacities at the university. If you start to tinker with the student-university relationship and make those people employees, it will have a huge impact across the entire university, not just the small percentage of those who participate in sports.”
Georgia Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski called player unionization “an incredibly scary thing,” but added that he understands why it’s come to this.
“We kind of backed ourselves into this corner by wanting to control every waking moment and have our kids here year-round, and have access to them all the time,” he said. “That sounds great, and coaches love control and I get that. I know why they feel that way and I appreciate that, but the other side is now this feeling that we own these young people, and their every thought and decision is something that has to be run through us, and I don’t care for that. Some of the backlash we’re seeing now is a result of that frustration that’s built up over that sense of lack of control of your own destiny. It’s a pretty human reaction, so I don’t begrudge people, and all that’s going on right now, I get why it’s happening.”
Louisville AD Tom Jurich applauded the athletes for standing up for themselves, but questioned the logistics.
“It’s not just going to be football players,” he said. “I’m a firm believer: If you’re going to pay athletes, you’re going to pay all the athletes. If you’re going to unionize, you unionize all the athletes. To me, there’s no difference between field hockey and football. Until that’s answered, I don’t even pay attention to it.”
Florida State AD Stan Wilcox said student-athletes should be negotiating for educational benefits, like an undergraduate degree plus a graduate degree, or time to make up credit hours to receive a degree. He cautioned what becoming an employee of the university could entail.
“I don’t think student-athletes really want to go down that road,” he said. “You become an at-will employee that can be hired and fired at any time. Your argument is that it gets you benefits, but you kind of have that now. If you become an employee, every employee has to pay X amount of dollars into a health care program. I don’t know if they’ve thought the whole thing through, as to what it really means to be an employee of the university.”
After Wednesday’s decision, everyone involved in college athletics will be thinking it through now.
ACC reporters Andrea Adelson and David Hale contributed to this report.