This week, the NLRB agreed to allow the players on the Northwestern University football team to unionize. This is one of those issues that is simple and straightforward in a free society and a total mess in our less-than-free society. Here are a few thoughts:
- In a free society, this is a no-brainer. The Northwestern players are welcome to create an association among themselves and call it anything they like, including "union". That association is free to try to negotiate with the university for better terms (they are also free to fail at this and make no progress).
- However, it is clear that we are not a free society because the players had to go to the government and ask permission to form this particular type of association. The reason is that associations called "unions" have been granted special powers and privileges under the law not available to other associations. There are also a large body of very particular rules for how such associations may conduct business and how other groups (in this case the University) can or cannot interact with it. It is a very tricky legal and philosophical question whether this package of benefits and privileges should be accorded to a group of college football players
- In a free society, the fact that the players don't get paid cash and that their universities make millions off the football program would be irrelevant. The players freely agreed to the deal (in most cases, playing in exchange for free tuition and perhaps a chance to land an NFL job) so there is nothing inherently unfair about it.
- However, in our society, we have all sorts of government interventions. I consider many of these interventions to be counter-productive, even occasionally insane. But if one is to navigate such a society (rather than, say, go off and live in Galt's Gulch), I think the principle of equal protection is critical. Arbitrary government interventions in free exchange are FAR worse when applied unevenly. From an equal protection standpoint, I think the players may have a good case.
- The law generally does not allow profit-making businesses (and the NCAA and college footfall are certainly those) to accept unpaid labor. Many folks who don't deal with the Fair Labor Standards Act every day will say: "players are paid, they get free tuition." But this is not how the FLSA works. It counts non-cash wages only in very specific circumstances that are enumerated in the law (e.g. lodging). Think of it this way -- McDonald's could not legally just pay all its employees in french fries and claim to be compliant with the law. Also, large numbers of Division 1 football and basketball players never graduate, which shows a fair amount of contempt by players for this supposedly valuable "free tuition" compensation.
- On the other hand, most college athletics are not profit-making. My son plays baseball at Amherst College -- it would be laughable to call this a profit center. I am not sure there are but a handful of women's teams in any sport that generate profits for their school, and even on the men's side money-making is limited to a few score men's football and basketball teams. But the few that do make money make a LOT. University of Texas has its own TV network, as do most major conferences.
- The law generally does not allow any group of enterprises to enter into agreements that restrict employment options. Google et. al. are getting flamed right now, and likely face criminal anti-trust charges and lawsuits, for agreements to restrict hiring employees from each other's firms. The NCAA cuts such deals all the time, both severely restricting moves between schools (transfer provisions in Division I are quite onerous) and preventing poaching at least of younger players by professional leagues like the NBA and NFL. The notion that top players in the NCAA are playing for their education is a joke -- they are playing in college because that is what they have to do in order to eventually be allowed in a league where they can get paid for their skills.
- Actually trying to pay players would be a real mess. In a free society, one might just pay the ones who play the most profitable sports and contribute the most value. But with Title IX, for example, that is impossible. Paying only the most financially valuable players and teams would lead to 99% of the pay going to men, which would lead to Title IX gender discrimination suits before the first paycheck was even delivered. And 99% of college athletes probably don't even want to be paid
- Part of the pay problem is that the NCAA is so moronic in its rules. Even if the university does not pay players, many outsider would if allowed. Boosters love to pay football and basketball players under the table in cash and cars and such, and top athletes could easily get endorsement money or paid for autographs by third parties. But NCAA rules are so strict that athletes can be in violation of the rules for accepting a free plane ticket from a friend to go to his mother's funeral. When I interview students for Princeton admissions, I never buy them even a coffee in case they are a recruited athlete, because doing so would violate the rules.
- Much of this is based on an outdated fetish for amateurism, that somehow money taints athletic achievement. It is hilarious to see good progressive college presidents spout this kind of thing, because in fact this notion of amateurism was actually an aristocratic invention to keep the commoners out of sports (since commoners would not have the means to dedicate much of their life to training without a source of income). The amateur ideal is actually an exclusionist aristocratic tool that has for some reason now been adopted as a progressive ideal. Note that nowhere else in college do we require that students not earn money with their skills -- business majors can make money in business over the summer, artists can sell their art, musicians can be paid to perform. When Brooke Shields was at Princeton, she appeared in the school amateur play despite making millions simultaneously as a professional actress. Only athletes can't trade their skill for money in their free time.
I am not sure where this is all going, but as a minimum I think the NCAA is going to be forced to allow athletes to earn outside income and accept outside benefits without losing their eligibility.