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Could Northwestern's Push for College Football Unionization Shake Up Football in the SEC's Right-to-Work States?

If unionization comes to college football, the SEC - and its 11 programs in right-to-work states - could be in for some major changes. Does a pay-for-play model benefit the private schools of Division I football's power conferences?

Kain Colter, the public face behind Northwestern Football's move to unionize, stands with labor leaders in Chicago.
Kain Colter, the public face behind Northwestern Football's move to unionize, stands with labor leaders in Chicago.
Matt Marton-USA; TODAY Sports

Northwestern University football players have been given approval to unionize, and the effect of that decision won't be limited to just one team in Chicago. A wave of unionization and collective bargaining could soon be poised to sweep across the NCAA.

And Vanderbilt may be primed to benefit from that ruling on the recruiting trail.

The National Labor Relations Board decided last week that Northwestern's football players met the requirements to be considered "employees" rather than the NCAA's preferred distinction of "student athletes." The NLRB looked at the amount of work that NU's players put in and determined that they exceeded the threshold of what it takes to be considered workers rather than volunteers. The university's inclination to prioritize football over academics for scholarship players swung the arbitrator's decision and allowed Northwestern's players to be the first collegiate athletic team to unionize.

While the team's athletes (or, more fittingly, employees) have yet to officially unionize, that move is on the horizon. They'll soon choose a president and, assumedly, collectively bargain for salary and benefits that comes with their standing on a profitable Division I football team. While there will undoubtedly be confusion, legal challenges, and debates to follow, last month's announcement has cleared the path for football players to earn a slice of the revenue they create for their schools.

The exact ramifications and pay scale of the NLRB's ruling won't be known for some time, but the results could be significant in college sports' most profitable industry. Last month's news clears the path for football players to claim their share of the revenue that has been pouring in to NCAA programs and conferences thanks to licensing and television deals. These athletes will have the opportunity to determine their market value to a football program and the school that supports it. With Northwestern already days away from unionization, it appears that players' unions will be the preferred method of establishing that value.

How Does the NRLB Ruling Affect Vanderbilt (and the SEC)?

So how could Vandy benefit? A private university like Vanderbilt will have some freedom when it comes to contracting with athletes that belong to a union. It also means that a private school like Vandy or Northwestern would be much more attractive for recruits that are interested in using a union to negotiate for any potential salary or benefits. These negotiations will be more complicated for state universities.

That's especially true throughout the south, where right-to-work laws have taken hold in nine of the 11 states in which SEC programs reside. Right-to-work legislation limits the power that employee unions have locally. It prevents these unions from automatically deducting dues from worker paychecks, makes it more difficult for existing unions to recruit new members by forcing them to opt-in rather than opting-out, and limits their ability to collectively bargain on issues like salaries, benefits, and working conditions. (There is obviously more to right-to-work than this, extending on both sides of the argument. To save ourselves a long, winding, and fruitless debate on the subject, let's cap this here).

That lack of collective bargaining is the key for public universities that would now be in the business of paying their athletes to work on the gridiron. Any unionized football team would have the opportunity to collectively bargain for pay, benefits, etc, at a private university. However, that directive does not apply at a public institution in a right-to-work state. The NLRB's decision has no effect on state schools, which instead defer to local laws and control. That means that there's little-to-no chance of college football unionization at public schools in right-to-work states like Alabama, Florida, or Georgia.

[As commenter Mark Mandingo points out below, Vanderbilt is still held to Tennessee's right-to-work laws even as a private university. For example, a strike by Vandy's football players would be designed as an illegal action by state law. However, as a private institution, Vandy is subject to the National Labor Relations Act, making unionization much more feasible on campus in Nashville than in Knoxville.]

That doesn't mean that these states won't be able to offer monetary compensation for their football players, it just means that players wouldn't have the strength of a union behind them in negotiations. That would favor the state when it came to discussing and creating reasonable player salaries in public colleges and universities. On a small scale, that's an advantage for an employer with a captive base of potential employees. However, that advantage flies away when their potential pool of applicants is given the opportunity to cross state lines or move into the private sector where a union or other negotiating practices can benefit the employee.

Unfortunately for public universities in right-to-work states, that flexibility and salesmanship between football programs is the soul of recruiting high school players. Teams that offer a players' union could end up at the top of many recruits' wish lists, even ahead of traditional powerhouses that can't offer the same kind of representation and benefits.

That creates a big advantage for Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Stanford, Duke, Wake Forest, and the other academically-strong private institutions in football's power conferences. Northwestern's path of action with its unionized program could be the precedent for university regents across the country. That's a path that other private schools in the FBS can follow and improve on with relative ease. The division's state schools will have a much more difficult time.

Certain SEC states have collective bargaining laws in place to aid public sector unions, but few seem applicable to a potential college football union. Every state that hosts an SEC football program has right-to-work legislation on the books except for Missouri and Kentucky. Missouri allows collective bargaining for state employees. Kentucky only allows public employees to bargain if they work in law enforcement, firefighting, social services, and corrections. Florida, Tennessee, and Texas also have union protections in place, but none would apply to university employees that are not either educators or law enforcement personnel.

Vandy's Recent History With the NCAA and the Player-Pay Debate

That means that Vanderbilt will be the most likely place for a union to take root amongst the SEC's football programs. Vandy is no stranger to the recent escalation of the pay-for-play debate. Recent graduate Chase Garnham, a standout linebacker for the Commodores from 2010-2013, is one of the plantiffs in Ed O'Bannon's anti-trust lawsuit against the NCAA regarding player rights and licensing without compensation. Garnham is one of several athletes fighting the governing body over payments for the use of their likenesses in video games like EA Sports's NCAA Football and other media.

While the university had no official stance on Garnham's participation in the lawsuit, the captain remained an integral part of the team throughout his senior season. The issue fell to the background without providing any distraction for either the program or the university in 2013. Vanderbilt may not be a pro-union institution- in fact, Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the college, noted robber-baron, and destroyer of the common railroad worker, may have been the human antithesis of the Northwestern ruling - but the school appears receptive to the coming changes that are braced to hit the NCAA.

If that holds true, Vandy will have a major advantage on the recruiting trail that other SEC programs - and many ACC, Big 12, and Big Ten programs - will not. The Commodores would be able to offer union representation when it comes to negotiating a college football contract with its players. In this scenario, the 'Dores would also have the chance to offer, or exceed, market value for players as a private institution. That's an asset that could blow away state programs where public sector unions have no collective bargaining rights.

What Negative Effects Could Unionization and Revenue Sharing Have?

That advantage may only apply to major conference schools with major football revenue. If scholarships are now counted as income for paid employees, they'll also be susceptible to taxation, which could hurt small schools that don't have television broadcast profits to make up for any potential losses. Players at these schools may be looking at a situation in which they actually pay to play football.

"No doubt [a university that offers union support and collective bargaining] is more attractive," a former SEC football starter who declined to be named in this story told AoG. "But a university that doesn't have a union, is part of a major conference, and [has a] tv deal would be the most attractive because they'd potentially also avoid taxes...NU players could essentially be a sacrificial lamb with unionization if all other players reap those benefits without the downside of taxes."

That's a concern that could further the separation of the "haves" and "have-nots" in college football. If small schools can't afford to make significant compensation numbers and their athletes face taxes that ultimately wipe out the positive effect of a football scholarship, it could be devastating to fledgling FBS programs. Television revenue for the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tops out at around $100,000 per school over the next three seasons. Can schools in that conference rely on income that will keep both teams and players afloat in a pay-for-play model?

The best possible unintended effect of unionization in college football? It may be the legislative battles that pit SEC football and all its advantages against right-wing politics in deeply-red states. The debates that would rage in Montgomery if collective bargaining laws hinder Nick Saban's recruiting would make ESPNU look like C-SPAN. State legislatures would be forced to react quickly when it came to addressing the newest - and most-profitable - employees on their public campuses.

Is that a stretch? Maybe. It depends on several variables that may never come to fruition. But it also may be the catalyst that makes the nation's power-conference private schools the new leaders in college football.

That's all still years away, but the issue has moved from a spot out in space to the horizon of collegiate athletics. Unionization is coming to college football. The SEC needs to be prepare for that - or Vanderbilt could wind up being the league's new recruiting power.

UPDATE: RE: Scholarships and taxes negatively impacting student-athetes (from Land-Grant Holy Land):