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If you've subscribed to Going For Two, the official podcast of Extra Points, you'd already have the latest episode, but just in case you haven't, you can listen to it right here in this newsletter.

In that episode, Bryan Fischer and I talk a bit more about the proposed College Athlete Right to Organize Act, or CORA.

Specifically, Bryan and I chat about:

  • How shifting the conversation away from just NIL-related issues impacts the college athletics reform movement
  • Whether this bill has a chance of actually passing
  • Why I'm skeptical college athletes are likely to unionize, even if federal law actually allows them to
  • How ending any final vestige of amateurism could change college sports.

I'll go ahead and spoil a little bit of this for you here. I still believe that there aren't enough Democratic votes to pass CORA, and the chances of any current Republican voting for such a massive expansion of organized labor potential is essentially zero. What makes this particular proposed bill interesting is not that it is likely to become law, or even immediately shape future laws. Anybody who remembers Schoolhouse Rock could probably tell you that a whole load of bills get proposed that never become anything more than footnotes on a lawmaker's website.

What really interests me about this proposal is how it resets the parameters of the college sports reform discussion.

The internet has ruined all of our memories, but it's worth pointing out that the growing consensus around the positives of liberalizing the athlete NIL marketplace is really modern. When I started my full-time sports writing career eight years ago, the idea that all college athletes should be able to monetize their NIL with minimal restrictions was certainly a minority view, and especially so within college athletics administration.

I think part of the reason opinion has shifted so quickly is because an enormous amount of energy was concentrated on one very specific question: the economic injustice of athlete's losing out on their publicity rights.

College athletics reform has pondered other questions for about as long as we've had college sports. But the bevy of missives from academics and journalists that expressed concern over the proper place of athletics within the academy, or athlete health, or the quality of the actual education given to athletes, has never captured the public and legislative interest like NIL has.

What Sen.Murphy and Sen.Sanders are getting at, with CORA, is a signal that they do not believe questions over college sports reform ends whenever an NIL bill is signed and athletes begin to participate in that marketplace. They view questions over healthcare, quality of athlete education, protections from coach or administrator abuse, and more, as also under that umbrella, questions that are worthy of legislator, if not the public, inquiry.

I think that's significant, even if I'm skeptical about the proposed solution

As I read CORA, my takeaway is that Sen.Murphy and Sen.Sanders believe that the most effective tool to address concerns over athlete healthcare, education and more is through collective bargaining. That is, after all, how many other workers address concerns over workplace conditions.

I'm skeptical of this, but not because I am skeptical of collective bargaining. Generally, I'm pretty pro-organized labor! I was involved in the unionization effort at my old workplace, and was a member of a teacher's union back when I taught elementary school.

My concern is more about whether athletes would actually vote to organize a union.

Labor organizing is really hard. It's hard because federal and state laws often make it that way, it's hard because large organizations are prepared to fight those efforts, and it's hard because it requires local leadership. Organizing is about personal trust, about convincing your colleagues that all of your collective interests can be met by working together, not alone. The larger the bargaining unit, the more challenging that can be, because not every worker always has similar interests.

Think back to this summer, for example. If anything, you'd think athlete leverage would never be higher. Amid COVID concerns, athletes were asked to make more sacrifices than ever before and potentially put their health at risk. "United" groups, paced by a Pac-12 United college athlete group, formed across the country to push for COVID protections, scholarship guarantees, and in some cases, revenue sharing.

When a Big Ten united group was formed, Ohio State football players released statements that...were not in unity with their peers. By and large, the demands of college athletes across the country...weren't met. There were no labor stoppages. No concrete policy changes won. The games went on, and management got just about everything they wanted. Same with the NCAA basketball tournaments.

That isn't to say that collective action couldn't ever happen. But I do think it would be very challenging. This is a transient workforce, where an athlete might hold a meaningful locker-room leadership position for just a single year. It's a really young workforce. And it's one with very different goals, expectations and needs, especially across sports.

Lawmakers can adjust the purview of the NLRB. They can make it easier to vote for a union. They can shift the Overton Window of public discourse.

But they can't make anybody actually decide to vote for a union.

So while contemplating what the end of "amateurism" might mean could be a useful thought exercise, I don't think it's likely to happen any time soon. If you're somebody who wants to push the envelope of college athletics reform in different directions, I don't know if the best tool to push is collective bargaining.

Not because I think it's a bad tool. I just don't think it's one that athletes are going to want to use.


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