An Invisible Union for an Invisible Labor Market: College Football and the Union Substitution Effect

65 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2012

See all articles by Michael H. LeRoy

Michael H. LeRoy

University of Illinois College of Law

Date Written: July 31, 2012


Should college football players have collective bargaining rights? The NCAA’s contractual relationship with student athletes provides grants-in-aid while strictly limiting their earnings. This model is premised on the belief that players are amateurs. But this view is contradicted by the heavy commercialization of NCAA football, including a rich championship playoff. Schools reap billions of dollars from TV and licensing agreements, a championship, numerous bowls, and ticket sales, but football players rarely receive enough aid to pay their full cost of attending school. The fact that TV deals minimize competition between the NCAA and NFL, so that each purveyor of football maximizes its revenue, means that Division I football players are in a similar product market as their professional counterparts.

This Article theorizes that college football players participate in an invisible labor market, where the NCAA is a monopsony purchaser of their labor and strictly allocates these market inputs to regulate competitive balance between schools. This labor market theory is supported by analyzing the U.S. Tax Code, Fair Labor Standards Act, and worker’s compensation laws. These laws suggest that NCAA football programs are employers because they control so much of a player’s activities, and derive a direct financial benefit from this labor.

The Article proposes a unique and limited form of collective bargaining for college football. This conception accounts for the fact that NCAA football differs from the NFL model because college players are full-time students who must adhere to a code of amateurism.

Thus, the proposed model of collective bargaining does not involve wage negotiations or strikes. This analysis shows, however, that players have interests apart from wages. These include: (a) scholarship shortfalls (the difference between their grant-in-aid and true cost for attending college), (b) extended or improved educational benefits, (c) complete medical and hospital insurance for football related injuries, (d) long term disability insurance for injuries such as brain trauma, (e) transfer and eligibility rights not inconsistent with NCAA rules, and (f) a grievance process to challenge abusive treatment by coaches and administrators. For negotiations between players and schools that deadlock on these subjects, the proposal draws from public sector labor laws that bar strikes but allow final offer interest arbitration.

This proposal also draws from industrial relations research on the “union substitution” effect, which shows that when employers face a credible threat of unionization they provide more voice and benefits to employees. This Article’s use of the union substitution theory is an acknowledgement that collective bargaining for college football is an improbable idea. However, if the concept is only proposed as state or federal legislation, this would be enough to stimulate a robust union substitution effect — that is, the NCAA would likely be induced to provide players a voice in their affairs, and be more responsive to their concerns. This view is supported with historical and current union-substitution examples.

The status quo is ripe for change. The NCAA is a monopoly that generates new revenue but reforms itself slowly. Without a credible threat of unionization, the NCAA has no reason to confront the fact that it is professionalizing college football. College football exploits an invisible labor market, but traditional collective bargaining is impractical for players. An invisible union, derived from the union substitution effect, is a plausible way to address their interests.

Keywords: Collective Bargaining, Sports, Monopsony, College Football

JEL Classification: J42, K31

Suggested Citation

LeRoy, Michael H., An Invisible Union for an Invisible Labor Market: College Football and the Union Substitution Effect (July 31, 2012). Wisconsin Law Review, Vol. 2012, No. 5, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Michael H. LeRoy (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

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