Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Friends, I'm still out around Salt Lake City right now on a family vacation. I'll be back at my desk late Wednesday night, so if I haven't responded to your email or Twitter DM, it isn't because I don't care about it, it's probably because I'm in a canyon somewhere with no cell service, chasing children who have no sense of self-preservation.
Since I'm off climbing around red rocks and eating fry sauce, I want to pass the mic over to my good friend Alex Kirshner, formerly of SB Nation and currently of the Moon Crew, Split Zone Duo, and all sorts of other publications. Alex really knows the labor movement, and he has a really interesting newsletter on what the notes and bolts of organizing college athletes would really look like, as told by other labor movement experts.
We'll have some other freelancer stories later this week. If you have an idea you'd like to pitch, drop me a line at Matt@ExtraPointsMB.com. For now, let me turn things over to Alex.
Conditions have never been ripe for any group of college athletes to form a union.
State laws are hostile to unions, especially those at public-sector institutions, in much of the country. They’re especially so in many of the states that care the most about college sports, especially football. (Almost the entire South has laws that prevent unions from automatically collecting dues from every worker covered under their contracts, and so does much of the Midwest.)
Even if state laws were friendly to employees who wanted to form unions, no adjudicating body in the United States has ever recognized college athletes as “employees” in the first place –– the specific thing they’d need in order to get a legally binding union off the ground. In 2015, football players at Northwestern got close, but even if the National Labor Relations Board hadn’t struck down their effort, the resolution in that case only would have applied to private colleges, which are a minority of the NCAA.
Yet conditions feel closer to ripe now than they ever have, for two reasons. For one, athletes have demonstrated an expanded realization of how important they are to college sports’ economics. In 2020, they acted on that realization, building on activism players had carried out many years before.
Second, politicians have taken an interest in the athletes’ cause. Most of that has taken the form of legislative efforts to let players collect money for the use of their name, image, or likeness, but a couple of U.S. senators recently introduced a bill that would go much further and grant players the right to form unions. That bill, from Democratic senators Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy, isn’t going to become law. But the very fact that the issue is the subject of a pressure campaign in Democratic politics shows how much the ground has shifted. Even Sanders hadn’t shown interest in college sports until recently.
If the legal environment changed enough to give athletes a chance at a union, some key things would have to happen: Some players would have to want to form a union, and they’d have to be able to organize their teammates (or other athletes at their school or across their conferences) to sign union cards or vote for a union in an election.
That could be really hard.
College sports is a high-turnover industry, where it could be difficult to build the trust and continuity that are so important in union organizing. The system gives coaches expansive powers over their players’ lives, and even the most sympathetic coach would face enormous pressure from their bosses to crack down on a union effort. The players don’t have much money themselves, which leaves them vulnerable to threats from their schools, the NCAA, and anyone who might step in to prevent athletes from organizing.
So, how would players go about mounting a successful organizing campaign in college sports?
I asked someone who’s as well-positioned as anyone to understand organizing in both high-turnover fields and the world of higher education: Eduardo Zevallos, who recently spent three years organizing fast-food workers in New York City for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and now works as an organizer for PSC CUNY, the union at the City University of New York. Zevallos talked me through some of the challenges inherent to a college athletes union drive, but also some of the things that would work in athletes’ favor.
There aren’t many unions of 18- to 22-year-old workers. In fact, a union of college athletes would be one of the youngest in the world. That presents an organizing challenge, but maybe not an insurmountable one.
One of the younger industries with a union presence is fast food. We don’t have perfect data on this, and older workers were entering the industry in droves early in the last decade, but the average age of a fast-food worker in 2013 was 29. When Zevallos organized Chipotle locations around New York, he ran into a problem: Fast-food workers didn’t like to consider their work as part of their identity, which made some of them reluctant to put time into a union drive. Some workers figured they’d soon leave their jobs to go to college, or to work in another field.
“They view it as, ‘Oh, this isn't work that's valued,’” Zevalllos says. “Meanwhile, I hope the pandemic showed us how valuable the work was. But with the college football player, I think they'd be more inclined to lean into it: ‘Yes, my identity is an athlete, a part of his team.’”
Zevallos didn’t find a general disinterest from young people toward unions. And there’s some evidence that younger people are more into unions than they used to be, or than they’re assumed to be. In 2017, more than three-quarters of new union members were 35 or younger.
College sports is a high-turnover business by definition. But it has less churn than, say, the food service industry, where unions are on the rise.
Workers can’t have a union if they don’t stay around long enough to form one. It’s a considerable barrier in food service. Zevallos says it was common for Chipotle locations he organized to have 30 or so workers at the start of the year and be down to seven of the original workers by the end of the year. He operated off an understanding that fast-food workers would turn over at a rate of 150 percent per year. (“You're basically looking for replacements of replacements,” he explains.)
A football roster turns over at a nearly 100 percent rate every five years, with 20 percent of the team, more or less, leaving in a normal year. So, sure, that could make it hard for organizers to identify and retain leaders who could help build a union drive. But it doesn’t feel insurmountable in light of how much turnover organizers work around in other industries. In a service industry environment, having an employee for a whole year might feel like a lot.
Zevallos points out Colin Kaepernick’s career at Nevada from 2007 to 2010 as an example of the kind of situation organizers could build around. If union organizers identified the right players relatively early on in their careers, they could have enough time to get momentum.
“That could have been a great opportunity to actually do something like this, because you have a quarterback,” he says. “The quarterback tends to be the leader of the team. He was a four-year starter. So it gives you four years to actually run a campaign.”
A college football roster has a lot of types of people. An organizing drive needs to focus on their common (and specific) struggles.
In the Power 5, 46 percent of the players are Black, 37 percent are white, and 18 percent are what the NCAA calls “other,” according to the organization’s demographic database. Every team has MAGA kids, liberals, leftists, and –– probably the largest group of all –– players who do not consider themselves political at all. They might not know anything about unions, and if they do, they (and especially their parents) might have vastly different views of organized labor.
So, don’t make a college football union drive into a referendum on the importance of unions as a concept, conservative politicians who hate them, or anything else in that arena. Make it about issues that everyone on a college football team is likely to care about. Maybe every player on the roster is tired of doing Oklahoma-style drills that subject their brains to constant trauma. Maybe everyone is pissed off about how early practices start in the morning, and they want to get more sleep. Frame the organizing as a way to address those grievances.
“The key thing is to try to keep it as concrete as possible,” Zevallos says. ‘Oh, there was a certain drill that everyone felt like it was a concussion risk.’ So we really focus on the issues. Then I think you start to take away those political differences in that sense.”
It’s especially important to notch a win on a concrete issue during a breakthrough campaign, the labor term for the first union drive in a given industry.
The drive needs to respect the wide diversity of a roster, though.
It starts with an organizing committee, a group of players who take responsibility for gathering support from their teammates and growing an idea into a proper campaign. The committee needs to be representative of the roster at large. That means having a proportionate mix of organizing committee members from every racial group, but it goes much deeper.
Ultimately, it extends to having players from offense, defense, and special teams, as well as a mix of players from different classes and perhaps specific position groups. The issues that are important to the linebackers might not be the same as the ones that matter to the QBs, just like auto workers at different points in the assembly processes might have their own grievances to address. Building a diverse committee means everyone’s issues get a hearing.
“You don't want to do a campaign and down the line figure out that you had a committee of all offensive players, and there wasn't a single defensive player on this committee,” Zevallos says. “And then down the line, the defensive players are like, ‘Oh, but you guys aren't fighting for this particular thing, you know? And now we feel excluded.’”
Making that mistake also risks creating an opening for a union-busting coach or administrator – what Zevallos calls “manufacturing differences” to create strife among workers: “Maybe management will run with the message of, ‘The union is only for the offensive players. They're not even involving any of you. They don't even care about what you think about.’”
In any college athlete organizing drive, a few things would work in the players’ favor.
The players spend more or less their whole lives together, including living together and spending a lot of time outside the facility. That translates to a lot of opportunities for organizers to pitch a union to their teammates away from the watchful eyes of a coaching staff.
“You start realizing certain players just naturally hang out with each other on the weekends,” Zevallos says. “If you can get one of those people to speak to a person, they're just going to naturally see. That person will just be way more comfortable. And also, we'll be in an environment that's not maybe right in front of a college admin person who might be anti-union.”
Once an organizing drive gets any traction at all, especially if it’s an FBS football team, the players will get the benefit of endless national and local media attention. Their cause would draw interest not just from football media members like me, but from reporters and commentators who cover labor and higher education, too. That attention would give organizers a chance to heighten the pressure on the school to accede to union demands. The bigger the school, the bigger the media circus would become around any drive.
“The workers in that industry would be so much more powerful if Alabama unionized versus SUNY Albany,” Zevallos says, “because Alabama is a massive market, has tons of publicity. There would just be that much more attention to it. You could win probably a really good standard, because Alabama brings in tons of money. They could pay the players [more than] SUNY Albany, where I would lean on thinking you get a pretty crappy contract because it's a pretty small market team.”
The players would also have national labor organizations lining up to help them. A sensible fit might be a pro sports union in a given team’s sport. By funding a college union drive, the pro sports union could land dozens of dues-paying members, generate a ton of public goodwill in the labor movement, and condition future professional players to be good union members.
That’s how one union might succeed. And in turn, it’s how more would follow.
For a moment, consider the football team at the University of Missouri.
Missouri is the only SEC state that doesn’t have a “right to work” law, which bans unions from requiring workers in union shops to be union members. Those laws in turn weaken unions, which are deprived of funding (via union dues) and leverage (via the threat of a strike) every time someone doesn’t join the union. Hence, they’re extremely popular with corporate interests and the politicians who do their bidding, which is to say: most Republican elected officials and also some Democrats. The governor of Alabama is not suddenly going to become pro-union.
Imagine, though, that the football players at Mizzou decided to attempt a union drive, and it succeeded, and suddenly those players bargained for financial, safety, and healthcare guarantees that the rest of their SEC peers could not. Imagine (and this is really getting to be a stretch, I know) that Mizzou became one of the best recruiting teams in the SEC.
Suddenly, Republican legislators in Texas and much of the South (plus parts of the Midwest) would have a choice to make: Do they like unions more than they like their college football teams losing recruiting battles to Mizzou? Some would decide unions are worse, and they’d be fine dealing with the recruiting consequences for their favored schools. But others wouldn’t, and there are surely plenty of voters who’d want to ensure their teams’ competitiveness.
Just look at how quickly southern states started enacting NIL laws once they noticed their neighbors were doing it!
If players elsewhere in the SEC saw a Mizzou union and decided they wanted the same thing, they’d have a better chance of getting it. And even if they didn’t, there’s a chance their schools would take unilateral steps to improve working conditions in order to head off a union drive. In any event, one successful union drive would be a key breakthrough to facilitate better player treatment.
“It would serve as this fantastic example that you could use for everybody else,” Zevallos says.
At this point, a college athletes union is still uncertain and, at best, far away.
But it’s not a fantasy. And that, on its own, is progress.
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