Here is a link to my Friday column explaining how the NLRB ruling can help college football players be pros. The full column runs below.

Maybe you read that a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Northwestern University football players have the right to unionize. Maybe you brushed off what you read, didn’t think about the implications.

No problem. I’m here to help. Here is one implication — one of many.

The ruling says football players at Northwestern are university employees with the rights of employees. This means Wildcats football players can collectively bargain with the university, can get coverage for sports-related injuries, can strike and, of course, they can get paid — share some of the enormous revenue they help generate for the school.

If this disgusts you, if you believe Northwestern players are pure amateurs, what world are you living in? College football is a multibillion-dollar commercial enterprise, a huge business.

American universities and the NCAA make out big time on this system with basically a slave-labor force. And the football players — the slaves — get zilch. And please don’t say their scholarships are adequate compensation. No way.

Remember this, the colleges and NCAA sell the players’ images for profit, and sell replicas of their jerseys, and sell memorabilia and create video games. But if the players sell their own autographs, they can be kicked off the team in disgrace because they violated some purist code that never was pure.

The NLRB ruling injects honesty into this hypocritical system.

So far, the ruling applies only to Northwestern. And, of course, Northwestern will appeal the ruling. Has to. But let’s deal with reality as it stands right now.

The NLRB ruling applies to Northwestern because Northwestern is a private institution. The NLRB could not rule on a public institution like, say, Michigan. The NLRB adjudicates issues only on private companies. It’s just how the NLRB is set up. Please don’t worry your head about that.

The Northwestern ruling certainly implies football players — and perhaps basketball players — at other private universities can unionize, can call themselves university employees, can share in the profits, can be the professionals they really are.

Do you see where this is going?

As things stand today, Stanford could pay its players. Cal could not pay its players. I am not making up this stuff.

Some blue-chip high school linebacker from Fresno gets accepted to Stanford and Cal and goes to his parents in all innocence and says, “Gee, Cal and Stanford are both great schools. I can’t decide where to go.”

At which point, Mom levels with Junior. “Knucklehead, they’ll pay you at Stanford. They won’t pay you at Cal. At Stanford, you can go on strike if you don’t like the coach. If you are serious about football, attend Stanford.”

The NLRB ruling would shake up just about every athletic conference in the nation. Take the Pac-12. Two private schools, that’s it: Stanford and USC. They will become absolute powerhouses in football. The rest will fall way behind.

UCLA football? Forget about it.

Washington football? That’s so 2014. Show me the money at Stanford.

Northwestern is outraged by the NLRB ruling and issued a statement: “While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

And here I thought Northwestern has a bunch of brains, Northwestern being sort of the Stanford of the Midwest.

Someone should clue in Northwestern it just got manna from heaven.

It can pay football players and Ohio State can’t. This could be the best thing that ever happened to Northwestern, which would become the big dog in the Big Ten.

Big advantage, Wildcats. Eat your hearts out, Buckeyes.

This ruling would change the competitive balance in college football all over the country. Little Lafayette College, my alma mater in Easton, Pa., could become a national terror. The Arizona schools could turn into football wimps. The powerful SEC could become an afterthought. Oklahoma? Never heard of it.

And all this is what college football deserves. College basketball deserves it, too, but let’s limit this discussion to football.

College football programs long have feasted on the efforts of so-called student athletes and given them crumbs in return.

Grossly-overpaid coaches and school presidents have preached a phony student-athlete ethic, pretending such blatant exploitation is good for the “character” of players. It is never good for anyone’s character to be a sucker.

College football is a corrupt system. The schools serve as a de facto minor league for the National Football League, but most college players don’t go to the pros. The schools get all the benefits and the players don’t.

This NLRB ruling could make the NCAA’s phony edifice come tumbling down.

Some highly-professionalized private football programs like Stanford and Notre Dame and Northwestern might retire from Division I status to retain their integrity as elite educational institutions.

They might get off television, downsize and renounce the professional football business. They might embrace the sane model of the Ivy League.

At the very least, private schools would have to rethink the meaning and purpose of football, rethink the role of all university sports.

It’s about time.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.


Be Sociable, Share!



  1. Ben

    Aww man I got excited when I read the post title because I thought you were actually going to theorize about how — as in, how much — college athletes would be paid. I’ve been curious about how that might work. Will universities like Stanford with enormous endowments be able to pay on another scale entirely? Will there be mandated maximums… and in what ballpark? Are we talking NFL-like salaries or somewhere between lunch money and an average workingman’s pay? How do you envision this?

    March 28th, 2014 7:30 am

  2. Dennis

    Isn’t it going to have to effect public schools as well? Sooner or later they are going to have to pay to field a team. I just don’t see them folding up the PAC 12. Ther eis still a lot of money to be made even though there will be less of it.

    My take is this is going to probably mean that college baseball takes a big hit. The schools claim to use football and basketball revenue to support Title 9 and other school teams that do not make money. With less money to spread around I don’t see how the colleges support the other sports. I don’t see how college baseball survives, especially if they have to pay the players.

    March 28th, 2014 8:12 am

  3. Dan

    I disagree. If you pay an athlete, you will also have to provide workers comp insurance, and the schools in California will be at a big disadvantage. So even if the football and basketball programs make money, the impact may force the AD’s to scuttle other programs – then there is Title 9………

    March 28th, 2014 8:42 am

  4. chris

    this could mean the end of college sports as we know it. Seems a solution would be to create a professional league for college athletes. They would play in stadiums and facilities that are off campus. And the million dollar stadiums that remain on campus could be used for P.E. classes and music concerts etc……

    March 28th, 2014 10:09 am

  5. Eric

    I agree with your sentiment to be sure. At a minimum, there should be some sort of per diem, or perhaps a weekly or monthly stipend for big time college athletes no matter what! However, as I look at the ridiculous disparity in unemployment and future earning potential in this country between those that have a college degree and those that don’t, I also think an emphasis should also be placed on the ability of these kids to complete college and get a degree. These players – of football and basketball in particular – give so much to their respective sports during the school year, it’s got to be incredibly difficult to focus primarily on school and get a degree within four years (yes, it can and is done). Unfortunately too many college athletes don’t. I’d like to see a good portion of the money derived from the BIG college sports funneled into trusts specifically targeted to fund the future college expenses – room & board, books, tuition – after those players have completed their eligibility and realized that they are NOT going to play in the NBA or NFL. Let’s face it, even though I agree they should be paid, these are college kids and any/most money received will go through their hands like crap through a goose but the ability, and the means, to go back and finish their education, should/will last a lifetime. And it’s not chump change, even CAL currently costs between $25k – $30k per year all in.

    March 28th, 2014 11:24 am

  6. Johnc

    In 2014 Lehigh and Lafayette will meet for the 150th time on the gridiron . This meeting represents the oldest rivalry in college football. The venue will be Yankee Stadium.

    As you pointed out the domino effect of this NLRB decision could have these same two teams vying for the national championship in a few years.

    March 28th, 2014 12:15 pm

  7. Johnc

    The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame? Forgeddaboud it !!!…the ten Mountain Hawks of Lehigh and the twenty leopards of Lafayette will become the new legends of the game

    March 28th, 2014 12:36 pm

  8. Streetglide

    The NCAA parasites are pooping their khakis as well they should…

    March 28th, 2014 12:39 pm

  9. Dr. Feelgood

    Lowell, your piece seems to have two parts. Part 1 about the leverage private schools can have in building powerhouse football teams, and Part 2 beginning with “And all this is what college football deserves”.
    I’m curious as to where your preference lies.
    As noted previously, my own view is one of utter disdain for the hijacking of college sports by the entertainment industry and the enormous sums of money that ends up in the hands of the “players”, and I don’t mean the athletes.
    Going down the road in Part 1 of your post, to my way of thinking, is just making another mess of the situation, whereas Part 2 offers constructive opportunity.
    Where do you see this actually headed?

    March 28th, 2014 2:03 pm

  10. CohnZohn

    Feelgood, I can’t know where it’s headed, but I like the Ivy League model and think schools like Northwestern and Stanford should embrace it.

    March 28th, 2014 2:34 pm

  11. Albert Park

    Lowell, you’ve been tilting at this windmill for years, and now you’ve been proved right! How does it feel?

    March 28th, 2014 9:37 pm

  12. Stan

    Like everybody else,I see this as changing college football. I think the world will adjust. Most of us aren’t college athletes or students. Thus, its not a world changer.
    You know, USF dropped a top ten college basketball program..who cared? If Cal has to shaken out of major sports,let it be. Might be best.

    March 29th, 2014 4:44 pm

  13. Stan

    What Cal spent on that football stadium and workout room,that was said to enable the football program to make money to fund all the OTHER college sports at Cal?..skip the stadium and that money spent funds Cal’s other sports until 2114. Rugby sweaters for everybody!
    It could be Cal just is not ever going to be a football powerhouse. The Tedford years were a cruel hoax.

    March 30th, 2014 9:20 am

  14. college football fan

    this was a very interesting column. thanks for the perspective. enjoyed reading it

    May 20th, 2015 9:49 am

Submit Your Comments


Required, will not be published