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Pay for Play – The Culture of College Athletics May Be Changing.

As many government employees are members of unions, and many of us who work with the government interact with union members and union rules, your perspectives on this issue may vary.

If you’ve ever been to a college football game – you know there is nothing like the atmosphere before the big game. Tailgating, trash talking against your rivals, and showing your school pride – tens of thousands, and at some schools, over a hundred thousand, fans pack the stadium to the brim in unison to cheer on their alma mater. Good times!

What you’re probably not thinking about is the amount of money the school, an academic institution, is making off of the ticket sales, t.v. deals, and $10 hot dogs. That’s right, you may be supporting your team, but you’re also supporting a big business – a business that wouldn’t exist without talented “employees”– the players.

Perhaps you heard the recent news about Northwestern University football players, and their desire to potentially unionize similar to the workforce of many other businesses. In an unusual turn of events for college athletics, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled last week that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and therefore can unionize – they’re entitled to certain compensation and benefits for performing their jobs. Players take a vote on April 25th.

So are the college athletes – whose likeness, skill, and successes that pack that stadium to the brim making the university and other businesses a boat load of cash – owed compensation and benefits? I won’t get into a debate over academics vs. sports, whether their performance on the field is more important to Northwestern than their in-class performance, or whether athletic scholarships can be considered payment for performance on the field; Or even if it’s logical that other businesses to which these athletes earn big bucks for have a right to complain about them wanting to gain further rights and benefits – a fair share of sports writers have already done that.

I look at this from a culture and team performance point of view.

I asked several of my friends, all big college football fans and alumni of big college football schools, (mostly Big 10 – hey, I’ll admit it, as a Big 10 fan myself and given Northwestern is part of the Big 10 – I was curious), what they thought about this from the perspective of culture and team performance – some of the responses:

  • “You’ve got to be kidding me. Although I think the NCAA and its corrupt processes and dysfunctional structure is the root of what is wrong with college athletics, allowing college athletes to get bargaining rights for additional compensation and benefits will ruin everything right about college football.”
  • “If these guys are indirectly paid via athletic scholarships, then they’re being paid to perform a job. If they feel they are entitled to additional compensation and benefits for performing that job well, then they should be allowed to protect their rights.”
  • “I think it’s an issue of hypocrisy. Will allowing them to unionize have a potential impact on college athletics, sure. But how come it’s ok for other university employees to unionize – but not for college athletes who spend so much time working on the field – particularly when they’re not paid by the university to perform that job.”
  • “The culture of college football is different than that of professional sports where athletes get paid huge amounts of money – it’s a culture of passion not a culture of cash. I think they should have the right to protect themselves and increase their voice in certain matters – but not to receive an actual salary for playing college ball.”
  • “If it makes them feel more safe and secure, more committed, and they play better football – then who cares.”
  • “The NCAA is just a hypocritical organization anyway. They’d prefer to create a culture where what they say goes and if players don’t like it too damn bad. Sure allowing players to unionize could cause issues like raising the prospects of strikes or possible lockouts – but if the players are getting treated fairly for all their hard work and effort – then they’d have no need for that and it wouldn’t matter anyway.”
  • “It’s college for crying out loud – what’s next allowing the student government association to form a union, what about the band? College athletes are driven by a love of the sport – that should be enough for them to play their hearts out – in hopes of getting drafted. If they get drafted, and enter the world of professional football, then they can argue contracts and compensation. While in college focus on your game – in and out of the classroom.”

These responses got me thinking – given the strong views – if college athletes can unionize to barter for additional compensation and benefits, will it change the culture of college football? Based on my small but passionate sampling the answer was a resounding “yes” – though perhaps it won’t necessarily change the culture in a bad way.

So if this major shift in college athletics does take place – what could change?

  1. Culture change is never easy, is it? It would take Northwestern some time to adapt to this type of change. Considering athletes to be employees is a new concept. This change, finding that football players were employees because they generate revenue for Northwestern, makes it easy to see the players’ actions add value. Will that mean that all revenue generating students would be considered employees and thus have a right to unionize? Can the argument be made that Northwestern is actually creating a culture of inequality via giving preferential treatment to revenue generating students – perhaps. On the flipside – culture change isn’t always a bad thing – particularly if it creates increased team performance and positively impacts the organizations ability to increase revenues and or deliver on mission.
  2. What about team performance? Well – the game will be played differently. New rules, new protections, and new guidelines could apply. This could lead to a decrease in customer satisfaction. The customer, in this case, the alumni and fans, maybe won’t come out in droves to support their team – or maybe they will. On the flipside – the ability of players to feel they are being fairly compensated for their hard work and commitment may lead to happier players and increased team performance – an increase in team performance leads to more wins – and more opportunities for the players to show their skills and potentially get drafted (should that be their desire.)
  3. How will it impact the bottom line revenues? If the fans are unhappy with how new rule changes and potential player protections are impacting the way the sport is played then they may not show up, or watch on tv, and the profits can start to dwindle. The dwindled profit not only affects the bottom line of athletic scholarship money of an educational institution, but the amount they can invest into their research and academics – which impacts education. On the flipside – happy players and a high performing team lead to more wins. Everyone loves to support a winning team. Fan satisfaction increases. Satisfied fans show up and spend more. More wins leads to increases in the bottom line and revenues for the university – from selling more $10 hotdogs to gaining more advertising partners. Profits increase.

Why should you care? Well…this is a learning lesson. Culture change often happens whether an organization wants it to or not – catalysts vary. A major shift in the culture of an organization can make a huge difference in performance – and performance impacts the bottom line. It may be positive, it may not be positive. How you confront culture change, how you support culture change, and how you lead culture change has a direct impact on your organizations bottom line and long term sustainability. In this case – we’ll have to wait and see what lessons we can learn from Northwestern.

Either way – I won’t stop rooting for my favorite college teams!

About Scott Span, MSOD: is CEO & Lead Consultant of Tolero Solutions – an Organizational Improvement & Strategy firm. He helps clients in facilitating sustainable growth by connecting and maximizing people –> performance –> profit™, creating organizations that are more responsive, productive and profitable.

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