NCAA president Mark Emmert continues to prattle on about the sanctity of the “student-athlete,” the amateur. At this point, he might as well be Nicolae Ceausescu touting the glories of communism to a square filled with citizens in the throes of democratic revolt. Northwestern’s proposed union gives him and the NCAA a life preserver, a way to maintain something pretty closely resembling the lucrative status quo, including its asymmetrical power arrangement.
Every major U.S. professional sports league would seize such an opportunity. Players unions and collective bargaining provide legal cover for the leagues to perform invaluable tricks — salary caps, revenue sharing, drafting players out of college instead of launching bidding wars for their services — that would otherwise blatantly violate antitrust law. During the last NFL labor dispute, the players decertified their union precisely to gain more leverage against the owners. The league, in turn, asked the court to reinstate the union, fearing its demise would result in players earning what the free market would bear. “I’m not quite sure why the NCAA hasn’t embraced the same philosophy,” said Boston College sports economist Warren Zola.
Because it’s the NCAA. Rather than accepting — never mind embracing — a chance to incrementally reform the status quo, it appears willing to blow the whole thing to bits. If the NCAA is lucky, it will fail and Northwestern’s union will be certified by the National Labor Relations Board. If, however, it succeeds in thwarting the Northwestern players’ limited requests, it will leave itself open to much more ambitious efforts down the road. Universities may soon be paying a lot more for the next Johnny Manziel than just tuition and gas money.