College Athlete Unions May Be Coming Sooner Than We Thought

How close are we to college athlete unions? In short: a lot closer than it might seem.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Victor Matheson, who literally co-wrote the book on sports economics (see: The Economics of Sports, 6th Ed.), joined the column last week to talk about the fiasco that is publicly-funded stadiums, and how what once was the status quo might be making an unwelcome return in the form of more taxpayer subsidies for glossy, unnecessary new stadiums. 

In the second half of our interview, we talked about how his work and economics connect to the NCAA and women’s sports more broadly — two areas where money is always a flashpoint. Below are some of his thoughts on when college athletes will get paid, the possibility of college athlete unions, and how women athletes have been shortchanged both in the NCAA and beyond. 

What’s your take on the state of the NCAA?

I mean, they obviously just fired Mark Emmert. I mean, I don’t know if anyone else would have done better, but Emmert led them into total disaster. The business model by which the NCAA thinks that they can continue to exploit athletes is not one that anyone agrees with at this point. It’s one of very, very few big and contentious issues that blue and red are basically almost 100% in agreement on — red saying, “This is a violation of free markets,” blue saying, “You’re totally violating labor rights here.” 

They got crushed, and they’ve been crushed every time they’ve tried to push the issue with the courts despite hiring Nobel Prize-winning economists to try to defend them in their court case two years ago. James Heckman got destroyed 9-0 in the Supreme Court, which is not really a 9-0 sort of place at this point. Got destroyed 9-0 by a bunch of people he called “so-called sports economists.” At the point that they’re generating the sort of revenue that allows coaches to make $10 million a year, they’re making the amount of revenue that would justify them paying the athletes. That’s it.

From where you’re sitting, how much longer do you think college athletes will be waiting to be actually paid a salary? Do you think that college athlete unions are in the not too distant future?

I’d say that unions are very close, because the only way that you can enforce any type of revenue sharing or competitive balance restrictions and all these things in a world where the courts are rejecting the ability of the NCAA or conferences to enforce this monopoly is through a union.

Basically, everything that sports leagues do is illegal. In a normal world, it would be illegal. Think about a world where you come out of college and then you can only work for one place because one place has drafted you, and if you’re really good coming out of college, you can only work at the worst journalism place. Or you can only work at the worst software place.

Do you think that college athlete unions are in the not too distant future?

But it’s not illegal when there is a union involved. So if they want to have things like salary caps on the players — things to generate some level of competitive balance — they’re almost automatically going to have to have a union to balance that out. They’re not going to get this blanket exemption anymore from the courts saying, “Oh, don’t worry, antitrust doesn’t apply to you.”

Once name, image, and likeness rules came in place, it was pretty obvious that people were going to get directly paid for name image and likeness, and that it was going to be used as a recruiting tool at different places. It was obvious, and I think the NCAA understood that and that’s why they fought it as long as they did.

NCAA women’s basketball South Carolina celebration - college athlete

Is this like next year, that athletes are going to start getting a salary? Or within five years or 10 years? 

I would certainly say within 10 years, you’re going to have athletes being paid directly by the schools. Not at most places. Depending on how popular the sport is, there will be bigger payments, and more athletes getting some sort of payment beyond a scholarship. 

Another thing I’ve written about a lot, and it feels like it comes up constantly, is the lack of investment in women’s sports.  The league says, “Well, you’re not making enough money, so we’re not going to spend any more money.” While it’s like, well, it’s never going to make more money if you don’t spend more money. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing, just people passing the buck. A comparison I’ve used before is MLS, and how much investment that has required to approach sustainability — yet there’s so much less questioning of its right to exist. 

I’m a little biased on this because I’m a huge Major League Soccer fan and actually worked as a referee in the league. I bristle at the comparison a little bit, but I don’t think it’s wrong. The NFL basically lost money for 50 years, the NBA basically lost money for 50 years. The WNBA is doing a whole lot better at 25 than the NFL was doing at 25, and a whole lot better than the NBA was doing at 25. 

I think Major League Soccer is a decent comparison, although I think soccer was also a huge underdog in a lot of ways. People made a long and consistent bet on soccer that is paying off now, but didn’t pay off for two decades. We’ve not seen that sort of sustained investment often outside the NCAA. A lot of what the NCAA has done for the “middle class” athlete is great — the soccer players at Williams College, the women’s tennis players at North Dakota State, all those sorts of things have been pretty fantastic.

But again, at that highest level, there’s just been complete ignorance of the fact they could sell [women’s sports]. The NCAA has the second-best gymnastics in the world behind the Olympics, and they don’t really sell it and they don’t market it and they don’t even bother. They just give it away. They’re undervaluing their own product.