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Unionize College Football

For reasons both progressive and traditional, it’s time for college players to unionize.

(Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock)

Last month, news spread that football players at Penn State, led by quarterback Sean Clifford, had begun to unionize. For football traditionalists, it seemed an alarming development, another sign that their sport was undergoing changes that would drain it of all that they love. Soon, though, Clifford denied the reports. Opponents of change were reassured.

They should not have been. College football has already changed irrevocably—and only unionization can restore a semblance of its old glory.


Over the last year, college football has been revolutionized. The amateur model, under which college athletes went unpaid, has been swept away by the sudden emergence of NIL—an arrangement under which athletes can be paid for use of their “name, image, and likeness.” In effect, NIL permits pay-for-play, the exact thing that the NCAA spent decades fighting.

At the same time, athletes have been permitted greater freedom in transferring. Once, a football player had to sit out a year when switching between schools, and had to get his old school’s permission to attend a new school. Now the NCAA proposes to let athletes transfer without restriction, essentially permitting perpetual free agency.

These moves have been forced by the NCAA’s losses in court. Judges determined that the body was wrongly restricting athletes’ ability to trade on their labor. The changes have been celebrated by sports journalists, who have pointed out that most of the (unpaid) athletes were black while most of the (well paid) coaches and administrators were white.

Market pressures also forced the change. Ballooning television contracts have flooded college football with unheard-of amounts of money. The result has been huge salaries for untested coaches, and ever more luxurious facilities. Athletic directors were also cashing in, taking home million-dollar salaries. If coaches had contented themselves with relatively modest salaries, donated money to their schools, and urged stipends for players, perhaps the amateur model could have been preserved. As it is, the obscene disparities in compensation were simply discrediting.

Change was necessary, but it has its downsides. One of them is the likely extinction of so-called “developmental programs.” These programs, usually situated far from the recruiting hotbeds, in places like Lincoln and Iowa City, rely less on brilliant individual talents than on time-consuming regimens of nutrition, weight training, and athletic discipline designed to mold less talented men into capable players. Running such a program requires keeping players on campus for several years, as they gain mass and experience. It benefits from careful instilling of esprit de corps.


Permitting unlimited transfers makes the developmental model impossible. A player in whom coaches have invested countless hours can transfer before his final year, when he was about to reward their patience. Likewise, pay-for-play will undermine the sense of solidarity, however illusory, on which these teams rely.

As developmental programs disappear, the sport will become more unbalanced. And as players, especially star players, become more transient, fans will become less invested in their teams.

There is no going back to the amateur model. But some of its virtues can be preserved by a step that even the most ostentatiously progressive administrators continue to resist: unionizing college players. This would require recognizing them as employees, which they manifestly are. It would mean abandoning the amateur model entirely, precisely in order to save what is best about it.

The advantages for the players are clear. Unionization would allow for the negotiation of ongoing medical care for all athletes, stalwarts as well as standouts. It would give them guarantees and predictability. At the same time, it would offer advantages for coaches who dislike the sport's recent changes. It would allow for restrictions on transfers and limits on compensation, which could be negotiated with all players through their collective-bargaining representatives and codified in a binding contract. It would make developmental football once again possible.

Unfortunately, administrators are committed to doing everything they can to avoid acknowledging that college athletes are employees. Kevin Warren, the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, met with Clifford in order to forestall the drive for unionization. He signaled openness to providing better medical care and did not exclude the idea of revenue-sharing. Jim Harbaugh, the coach at the University of Michigan, went further. He has suggested that the conferences should sign NIL deals with their own players. “The Big Ten, even—they use [players’] name, image and likeness on the TV broadcast,” Harbaugh said. “Why can’t that be an NIL deal?”

But these proposals are insufficient. Only unionization will ensure that all players receive certain benefits, such as ongoing medical care. Only unionization will allow for the restrictions on trade that would promote parity and engage a broader base of fans.

On its current course, college football risks losing its charm, as a few elite teams outpace all the rest. Conservatives often point out that unions suppress competition, rendering markets less efficient. Usually these effects are lamentable, but in college football they are sorely needed. Less competition in the market can increase competition on the field. It will help to enable the return of blue-collar programs. For reasons both progressive and traditional, it’s time for college players to unionize.