Earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players had the right to vote to organize as a labor union. Although the results of that are still pending, it may be the beginning of the end of the NCAA as we know it.

Early indications are the Northwestern players voted against unionization, but the NLRB’s ruling is significant because a governmental body has determined football players are seen as employees and not student-athletes and that is why they have the right to unionize. That new designation of student athletes, should it hold up, completely undermines the authority of the NCAA, the so-called non-profit association that regulates athletes of 1,200+ institutions throughout the country.

It’s not quite clear how the NCAA garnered the authority to rule as it does today. The organization itself dates back to President Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the creation of this organization as a means to curb injuries and deaths from the sport of college football. After that, the NCAA was looked to as the governing body to police other aspects of college sports, which included after World War II the financial aid aspects of college recruiting and the broadcast of games on television.

Alabamians, regardless of whether their stripes are orange and blue or crimson and white, are all too familiar with the NCAA dating back to the 1950s for Auburn University and the 1990s for the University of Alabama.

Over the years, the NCAA as the ultimate end-all and be-all authoritative body has taken some hits on the legal grounds, which has eroded some of the body’s standing. In 1984, the University of Oklahoma challenged the NCAA’s claim on being the sole proprietor of television rights. The case was settled in the Supreme Court with the high court ruling 7-2 that the NCAA was subject to antitrust law. That shifted control of television rights to the individual conferences.

Since then, the member institutions have gone along with NCAA edicts on its major-revenue sports, which are primarily college football and men’s basketball. It has been this balance between university presidents and the NCAA with very little input from the student-athlete, or now as the NLRB has deemed them, employees.
The nature of college athletics is there is a high turnover and thus, there never has been sustained momentum from within the ranks of student-athletes to take on the NCAA. That has worked to both the major universities and NCAA’s benefit.

The NCAA is approaching an annual revenue stream of $1 billion, most of which is attributed to the organization’s Division I men’s basketball tournament. Some, but not all, of the individual school are raking in big bucks as well. Both Auburn and Alabama have brought in excess of $100 million over the past few years.
With so much money coming in the coffers of these institutions, it’s no wonder that Big Labor may see them as a potential target. Did the powerbrokers that run collegiate athletics really think the gravy train would run on forever?

The push to put more power in the hands of the student-athlete now has the backing of high-profile deep-pocketed lawyer Jeffrey Kessler. In March, Kessler filed suit against the NCAA with the idea of challenging the rules on player compensation.

“The main objective is to strike down permanently the restrictions that prevent athletes in Division I basketball and the top tier of college football from being fairly compensated for the billions of dollars in revenues that they help generate,” Kessler said in an interview with ESPN last March. “In no other business — and college sports is big business — would it ever be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free. Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn.”

What if Kessler’s efforts are successful? Men’s basketball and college football aren’t the only sports major institutions field. However, those are the two sports that make possible other sports under that athletic department’s umbrella.

There are also the Title IX considerations any such change in the way an institution would compensate players. Title IX mandates institutions that receive federal financial aid (which includes nearly every institution of higher education) not discriminate with education programs based on gender. Compliance with Title IX is determined by a convoluted three-prong test which is passed if athletic participation “opportunities” are proportionate to the student body enrollment, a demonstration of an effort to increase “athletic opportunities” for the underrepresented sex or accommodating interest in “athletic opportunities” of an underrepresented sex.

The problem is, while the law may say the captain of the women’s softball team is equally as vital as the quarterback of the football team, the economics suggest otherwise.

One potential outcome would be for legislators in Washington, DC to get involved in some sort of collegiate sports reform. At that point, it may be a situation of not party affiliation, but an alliance of states with colleges and universities with major athletic programs, say for example left-leaning Oregon and right-leaning Alabama taking on states with little-to-no collegiate athletics like liberal Vermont and conservative Wyoming.

Whatever that outcome could be, there is absolutely no reason to believe it will be particularly efficient or in the best interest of anyone involved. Case in point: Washington’s latest effort to reform health care. The NCAA doesn’t exactly rate very high among American bureaucracies. Some view it negatively because their school may have been punished by it. Others may see it as a bloated organization skimming profits off the work of others, which in this case are student-athletes.

Thus, it would be in the NCAA’s best interest to run, not walk to the negotiating table and give a little on player compensation rules. Otherwise, the organization will be weakened by what looks to be an onslaught of legal and possibly legislative challenges heading its way.