The world of big-time college sports seemed miles away from Sea Foam Stadium when the Concordia football team recently punched its way through a biting April wind during a Sunday spring scrimmage in St. Paul.
So did the question of whether college athletes should be allowed to unionize.
The topic now scrolls regularly across the bottom of ESPN. But Jim Munkwitz, whose son Jake is a tight end at Concordia, had clearly given it some thought. “I’m not so sure about a union,” he said. But “I think the Northwestern guys bring forth some valid concerns.”
Many eyes will be on Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., when the school’s football team votes Friday on whether to form a union, a move that could dramatically change the world of college athletics. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Wildcats players are employees of the school and eligible to form a union.
But the narrowly defined ruling, which Northwestern is appealing, is seen at the moment as applying only to football players at private colleges that offer athletic scholarships, and not at public universities such as the University of Minnesota.
Enter Concordia (St. Paul): A private Christian school with 1,344 undergraduate students, a college that offers athletic scholarships and plays NCAA Division II sports. Could the Northwestern ruling, should it stand, apply to Concordia?
The answers at the moment are murky — but the opinions are not. School officials, while wary of having student-athletes comment on the subject, acknowledge that they are closely watching what happens at Northwestern.
Ryan Williams, Concordia’s fourth-year football coach, said the unionization push at Northwestern “doesn’t make sense.”
Hank Goff, a senior defensive end, wore a Concordia gray sweatshirt and nodded in agreement as he sat with his coach in a St. Paul restaurant. “It puts division in a team,” he said. Goff added that his teammates have not discussed the issue because “we’re too busy getting better, getting ready for next season.” The Golden Bears, who finished 5-6 a year ago, will hold their annual spring game Saturday, a day after the Northwestern vote.
Unionization won’t be quick
Even if Northwestern players vote to form a union, little is expected to change immediately. The legal fight to unionize, should the players vote to do so, could drag on for at least a year and include appeals by Northwestern to the full National Labor Relations Board, and also into federal court, said Laura Cooper, a University of Minnesota law professor specializing in labor law and arbitration.
But analysts have said the long-term consequences of a pro-union vote could dramatically change the game — and the costs to the school — by allowing players to bargain over medical coverage, compensation for commercial sponsorships and due process over rules violations.
Cooper added that — faced with a certified players’ union — Northwestern could be forced to bargain with players over practice hours or dollar amounts of scholarships since each would be a “term or condition of employment.”
She added that a Division II private school that offered scholarships also could face a union vote — if the school’s athletes were seen as employees of the school because their sports schedules largely controlled their college life.
A little smaller level
Concordia is certainly not Northwestern. Athletic Director Tom Rubbelke oversees a $4.2 million budget; he said his recruiting budget for basketball totals $1,500. Of the school’s 100 football players, roughly 70 receive some type of scholarship. Just one or two, added Rubbelke, get full athletic scholarships.