CHICAGO — Vince Dooley is sure relieved he's not running an athletic program these days.
Not after a decision allowing Northwestern football players to unionize, and what that might mean for all college sports.
"If this ever happens," said Dooley, now retired after four decades as Georgia's football coach and athletic director, "the issues would be unlimited. What might happen from school to school, from day to day, from year to year, I don't know. I'm just glad I've served my time."
Around the country Thursday, coaches and administrators pondered the potential ramifications of the stunning decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled the Northwestern football team — up to now, referred to by the NCAA as student-athletes — are actually university employees in everything but name. Therefore, they should be able to bargain collectively for their fair share of an industry worth billions.
That set off speculation over what might happen if the ruling holds up on appeal:
- Would the big-revenue sports have unions, but others be left to fend for themselves?
- Would private school athletes get to negotiate over issues such as compensation and health insurance, while their public school counterparts are denied a spot at the bargaining table?
- Would high-profile programs such as Notre Dame and Alabama be better positioned financially to share a piece of the pie with athletes, leading to an even wider gap between the haves and have-nots?
"I just don't think you can come up with any kind of formula that's going to be equitable and fair to all," said John Chaney, who coached men's basketball at Temple for a quarter-century and was never shy about expressing his views on the ills plaguing college athletics.
The NCAA and its conferences came out in unison against the ruling — not surprising, given their enterprise has contracts worth nearly $18 billion just for the television rights to the NCAA men's basketball tournament and football bowl games.
"We've got something very special in this country that is unique in the world that combines athletic competition with higher education," Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford said. "When it's done right, it's a beautiful thing."
But some wondered if the NCAA brought this all on itself by dragging its feet on concerns that have been lurking for years, everything from stipends to at least close the gap between what a scholarship pays and the actual cost of going to school, to covering the cost of health insurance for athletes who may still be feeling the aches and pains of the playing field long after they leave campus.
In a sense, it's what happened to baseball in the late 1960s and early '70s, when owners desperately clung to the archaic reserve clause, which prevented players from changing teams when their contracts expired. When the reserve clause was overturned in 1975, it led to free agency, exploding salaries and years of strife between players and owners.
"Maybe the leadership at the NCAA has not been as aggressive in trying to come up with solutions as it should have been," said Pete Boone, the former athletic director at Mississippi.
The decision — which only covers private schools — sets up a potentially tangled web of legal conundrums and inequities across college athletics. For instance, some states have laws that would make it next to impossible or even illegal for athletes at public universities to unionize. Legal observers can foresee a day when the NCAA is split between schools that are unionized and those that are not.
Federal law can only apply to private schools, which means Northwestern stands alone in the Big Ten. State law would apply to public schools, and those laws can vary dramatically. In Wisconsin, for instance, public-sector unions are prohibited from collective bargaining over multiple issues, including health coverage. In states that encompass most of the Southeastern Conference schools, union rules are even more restrictive.
Schools without unions could have a financial advantage. But recruits might prefer to go to unionized schools where they would benefit financially.
"Athletes at union schools might have better conditions, working fewer hours," said Joseph Farelli, a New York labor lawyer. "They might have negotiated a $5,000 stipend. Is that going to be more attractive to a recruit? Of course it is."
That would run counter to the NCAA's core philosophy: universal rules for all schools. Which is why, Boone and others said, the governing body must take steps to deal with a movement that, for now, is primarily focused on coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.
"I don't think the NCAA could allow some schools to have one set of rules that might hurt them in recruiting," Boone said. "It's got to be the same for every school, regardless of whether they have a union or not."
But even within Division I, the NCAA's top level, enormous inequities exist between member institutions. Schools in the so-called power conferences, such as the SEC and Big Ten, generate far more revenue. Those leagues wield huge influence over governance and many have set up their own television networks.
Those inequities scuttled an effort a few years ago to provide a modest stipend to Division I athletes. The smaller schools said they couldn't even afford $2,000 a year per athlete.
And then there are the divisions that exist within the big-time programs themselves. Nearly all revenue is generated by football and men's basketball, which are used to essentially subsidize every other program — from women's basketball to baseball to tennis.
"What happens to other students who aren't in revenue-earning sports?" asked former Georgetown coach John Thompson. "What happens in women's sports?"
Or, he wondered, can athletes who consider themselves employees be treated like workers in other industries?
"Can you fire somebody if he doesn't perform?" Thompson asked.
Dooley said it's not surprising that college athletes began to speak out more and more on the clear inequities in the system, especially when they saw the staggering TV deals and huge increase in coaching salaries.
"You have some very bright kids out there," he said. "It's just a sign of the times."