At the end of the day, after the various courts have had their say, the relationship between the NCAA and football and men’s basketball players at the largest institutions is going to take one of three forms. The NCAA may be allowed to continue to make unilateral policy decisions, which means student-athletes would still have no formal voice. Athletes may win the right to collective representation and bargaining. Or the courts may rule that the NCAA is a cartel guilty of price fixing and allow high school athletes to sell their services in an open market.

In the wake of the recent regional NLRB ruling that football players at Northwestern University are employees with a concomitant right to unionize, the NCAA has clearly set its sights on appealing and decrying what they envision as radical change. Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott claimed unionization could lead to a funding shortfall for non-revenue sports, possibly even jeopardizing Title IX, and argued that legitimate concerns about health care and making financial ends meet would degenerate into greed: “Any unionization effort that I’ve ever seen in pro sports, it’s not just about health care and work conditions, I mean they’re going for a big slice of whatever’s available . . .” Striking an even stronger tone, NCAA president Mark Emmert described unionization as “grossly inappropriate” and warned it “would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”

Really? Even looking at this from the NCAA’s point of view, I am not at all sure that unionization is tantamount to apocalypse–especially compared to the free market alternative.

Yes, unionization entails that student-athletes would have to be explicitly recognized as stakeholders, which means that management would lose a lot of its prerogative. “Trust us” would have to give way to, “Negotiate with us.” And it is possible that athletes could demand a much bigger slice of the pie, or even, God forbid!, strike.

But there are a lot of reasons to think that the changes would end up being far less radical.

First of all, 18 to 22-year-olds would not be easy to organize. The militant wing of the student population is not normally well represented in the athletic community. In fact, most of them are far more used to following their coaches’ orders than questioning them, let alone organizing.

Parallels with organizing graduate teachers and researchers are instructive. I can assure you, from first hand experience, that it is really difficult to organize graduate students. Unlike athletes, they are taught to question authority and are more politically aware. But–like athletes–they are only going to be at a university for a few years, don’t have time for union activities, and are reluctant to endanger their professional futures by agitating. Securing additional pay and benefits is less important than investing in their chosen field of study. Finally, having the right to collectively bargain has not resulted in huge pay increases for grad assistants; the real gains have been limits on the hours spent teaching or researching and securing health care coverage–both of which Scott acknowledged were problems for student-athletes that need to be addressed.

There is one other hugely important lesson to be learned from this comparison. Universities negotiate with graduate unions despite the fact that they are not classified as employees. At the University of Oregon, for example, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation is afiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO–but they are not legally classified as employees. They don’t have a right to worker’s compensation or retirement benefits. Student-athletes might be classified similarly, especially if the hours spent on athletics were kept below a .5 FTE.

The other concerns expressed by Scott are also less threatening than they appear. First of all, the NCAA is already considering covering the full cost of attendance for some student-athletes, which means the basic budgetary problem is not going to be impacted by unionization: the funds to pay athletes a few more thousand dollars a year are going to have to come from somewhere.

More to the point, why would funds have to be diverted from the non-revenue sports? Why couldn’t they come at the expense of the facilities arms race or coaches salaries? The NCAA could pass bylaws that compel athletic departments to fully fund X number of non-revenue sports and ratchet up the criteria for what counts as Title IX compliance. In other words, the idea that we can have football or women’s soccer, but not both, is a false dichotomy. Coaches could still sell their services at full market value, but their salaries might decline, or at least level off, if the vast majority of funds were already obligated to other line items.

There is one other viable option, that comes without any budgetary dilemmas. The NCAA could allow athletes to capitalize on their marketability while they are in college. There would need to be some restrictions (you don’t want your star player shilling for a strip joint), but why not let them retain registered agents or do commercials for a local pizza joint? There would be no cost to athletic departments, fewer under the table payments, less hypocrisy, and the NCAA would at least be partially addressing the charge that they are a price-fixing cartel.

Management is particularly loathe to relinquish prerogative. Hell, that’s probably half the reason to go into management. But the ostensible point of having power is to serve the ends that define your institution. The NCAA seems committed to doing everything in its power to maintain the status quo, but they may very well find that major change is inevitable, and that treating student-athletes as collectively represented stakeholders can be reconciled with the NCAA’s mission a lot more easily than the free market.

The threat of unionization is overstated, but unleashing free market forces might really blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.

— Ken Pendleton