The Two Unrecognized NCAA Sports Stories of 2018

Big time college athletics are in a state of flux. Judge Wilkens’ decision in the Alston case, which might soon issue, could be game-changing. The federal wire fraud indictments, once all resolved, might cause schools and coaches to more slavishly adhere to the prissy constraints, outlined by NCAA bylaws, which have so commonly been ignored. But some other events cast a new light upon the end result of the Northwestern football organizing effort, in which the regional office deemed the football player an employee, but the Board declined, due to “labor stability” questions, to assert jurisdiction, and dismissed the petition.

Two sets of events might give clues as to how current players can significantly increase their current authority, voice, and power:

In the spring of 2018, a wave of teacher activism erupted out of nowhere. In West Virginia, teachers tired of years without a raise, deteriorating school infrastructure, and deaf ears they had repeatedly encountered at the state legislature, staged a nine-day walkout, and  eventually gained a 5 per cent pay raise. In Oklahoma, teacher agitation led to the state legislature approving a teacher raise, and significant increases in school funding. The movement spread west to Arizona, and Colorado. All in all, there have been six states where teachers have walked-out, or threatened to: Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Those are all weak union states.


Two years ago, student workers at Grinnell College, a private school in Grinnell, Iowa, formed their own Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers. By December of 2018, they were faced with a decision-by-ballot, as to whether to strike for better wages and benefits. The vote narrowly failed, but the union committed to push for its aims through negotiation with the college.

The entire body of student dining workers, at campuses across the U.S., is not a weak union. It is no union at all. None. There have been — at least until Grinnell students changed things — no undergraduate student collective bargaining efforts. (Every other union-organizing effort on campus had been either at the faculty or graduate-student level.)


Before you click away from this post: yes, this is about NCAA college sports, because these two scenarios whisper two things to big-time college athletes:

Organizing to gain power does not require a union

The teacher movements were all undertaken without much union representation or action. Some of them required no such union involvement. These were largely completely grassroots, email, or facebook groups of affected employees. The campaigns were at little or no cost. They spread like wildfire. And they had extraordinary impact.

Undergraduate students who perform non-academic work can organize under state or federal statutes.

Private educational institutions are subject to the federal NLRA statute; public entities are subject to state collective bargaining laws. Both can logically be applied to students who happen to do other work on campus — like those student dining hall workers on the Grinnell campus.  Or — like college football and basketball players.

The lesson?: Power 5 ‘revenue’ basketball and football players need to:

Form a facebook or other online group (to which admission is gained by showing bona fide status), to merely exchange information, and bounce questions around. Simple, without administrative infrastructure — just as, for example, a 23-year old teacher in Arizona formed the Arizona Educators United, on Facebook, which exploded into a major vehicle for state-wide communication among Arizona teachers. Power 5 revenue athletes need a similar online forum.

Consider attempts to organize athletes as student workers, just as the Grinnell undergraduate dining workers did.

Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers . . . Union of Power 5 Student Football and Basketball Workers . . .

Arizona Educators United . . . Power 5 Football and Basketball Workers United . . .




About brewonsouthu

lawyer, with interest in college sports and NCAA oversight and decisions, and sports generally.
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