We tend to think of economics in terms of dollars and cents, but, fundamentally, it is the study how we allocate our limited resources to satisfy our relatively unlimited wants. If my kid wants the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip and I want “Sense and Sensibility” on blu-ray, it’s great if we can get both. If we’ve only got 20 bucks to spend, something has to give. Assuming I control the purse strings, I decide who wins. In an economic sense, it comes down to me prioritizing my kid’s happiness versus getting to see a Jane Austen classic in stunning high-definition.
Factors beyond our individual control come along all the time that change the calculus of these decisions. If I show up at Target and the action figure is on sale for $10, that might influence my decision. If a run on Victorian-themed cinema jacks the price of my blu-ray up to $25, my decision gets made for me.
What sometimes gets lost in broader economic discussions is that we all have power over how we arrive at those allocations. In observing the fallout this week from the National Labor Relations Board decision in favor of granting Northwestern football players the power to unionize, it has struck me that a significant segment of the population has either forgotten this fundamental fact of life or is choosing to ignore it.
Assuming the ruling holds up and reflects the direction of the future of major college athletics, it changes the factors surrounding our decisions about college sports. It doesn’t make anything fait accompli.
This ruling declares that Northwestern is treating its football players as employees in a legal sense. Like its counterpart schools, Northwestern made its own bed. The school had a number of choices in the requirements it imposed as conditions for a scholarship. The results of those choices opened the door for the players to take this action.
Likewise, Northwestern and the rest of the schools participating in major college football could choose now to undo those requirements. If forced to collectively bargain with the athletes, they have the power to decide the terms that they are willing to accept in any deal.
The same applies to the concerns raised about unforeseen consequences for players should they exercise their rights under this legal status. What if they have to pay taxes? How do union dues get paid? Can players be “fired?”
It’s no different than anything else in life: If the consequences of changing their relationship with the schools suck, they can revert to the old way of life. Given how hard the schools are fighting to maintain the status quo, I imagine they’d happily go back.
And maybe the hardest part for the majority of people reading this: Fans, alums and the public at large have choices, too. If schools opt to divert funding from “minor sports” to fund men’s football and basketball, we can exert public pressure on administrators to come up with better solutions. We also have the ultimate power: Voting against those decisions with our wallets and our TV time.
The parameters that will govern college athletics going forward won’t be settled anytime soon. However, the message of this decision is that this way of doing college sports, which has been dictated by the schools, will no longer hold up to legal scrutiny. So long as that line of thinking holds up in forthcoming legal decisions, it means we have to look at college football and its relationship to college athletics as a whole in a different way under a different set of guidelines.
But it doesn’t mean the downfall of college sports–unless we choose for it to.