VALPARAISO | The National Labor Relations Board delivered a decision last week that could dramatically alter the landscape for collegiate athletics across the country.
The NLRB granted the right to unionize to Northwestern football players, a decision that the Evanston-based institution immediately disagreed with.
“Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students,” the Northwestern administration said in a news release. "Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”
The decision likely faces a long road before becoming reality as an appeal is a near-certainty. That hasn’t stopped athletic administrators from taking pause and reflecting on the potential impact of the decision as student-athletes move closer in an attempt to gain “employee” status.
“(Valparaiso University) President (Mark) Heckler and I have had conversations about what the Horizon League should be,” VU Director of Athletics Mark LaBarbera said. “These conversations have also taken place between the (Horizon League) athletic directors as well. We can’t go down a professional model and we need to figure out a way to have a collegiate model. Whatever that model may be.”
The NLRB’s decision last week affects the 17 private schools that currently play football on the FBS level. Though Valparaiso is a private institution, the Crusaders play nonscholarship football at the FCS level and don’t have nearly the same kind of budget as schools such as Northwestern, USC or Stanford.
“The big five conferences could be heading down a road, and we just can’t exist in that world,” LaBarbera said. “It’s not that we haven’t talked about the impact, but we don’t have a contingency plan because we can’t conceive that we could put a plan in place. We just don’t have that kind of money.”
Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone agreed with LaBarbera’s assertion and took the comments a step further last week.
“I found it really difficult to comprehend how anyone could interpret a student-athlete — how anyone could define a scholarship as an employment agreement,” LeCrone said. “It’s absolutely beyond comprehension to me. We educate young people through sport. That’s what we do. Some are on scholarship, some are on partial scholarship and some don’t have any kind of scholarship.”
While LeCrone agrees that Horizon League programs are built different than the football-driven BCS conferences, the longtime athletics administrator doesn’t want to solely concentrate on budgets when looking at the current NCAA landscape.
“It’s not about who has the money and who doesn’t,” LeCrone said. “We educate young people. From Ohio State to Florida State, to my alma mater Wake Forest and the Horizon League. This decision just misses the mark of what we do by as far as you can miss it.”