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College football players unionizing is a good thing even if you don't normally like unions

There are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to be against unionized labor, but they don't apply to the situation currently facing college athletes.

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

In American culture, the archetypical union employee is one who knows that it's probably going to be more trouble than it's worth to fire him and acts accordingly. When he's not providing terrible customer service and cat-calling female passersby, he counts down the days until he can punch out for the last time and collect that sweet union-negotiated pension. While this clearly doesn't represent every member of every union -- although I work every day with people that it does represent -- it's prevalent enough that it's become part of a deep-seated skepticism of organized labor.

As a result, there are people, including Dabo Swinney, who are concerned that the National Labor Relation Board's decision to classify Northwestern football players as employees rather than "student-athletes" will lead us down a slippery slope toward players going on strike in the middle of practice instead of running wind sprints. The NLRB's ruling does indeed make it much more likely that college athletes at private schools in non-right-to-work states will be allowed to unionize, but it's not clear right now if the impact of this decision will go much further beyond that. And at state schools, such as South Carolina and Clemson, in right-to-work states, such as the state of South Carolina, it's hard to see that it will have any direct impact at all.

But suppose for a moment that this did lead to every school in the NCAA, public or private, right-to-work state or no, having a players' union advocating the interests of its members. Would that be such a bad thing?

There are plenty of perfectly defensible reasons, rooted in classical economic theory, to think that unions generally tend to create inefficiency and deadweight loss in labor markets. But let's no fool ourselves into thinking that the Northwestern players are banding together in an effort to create chaos in an otherwise perfectly-functioning market for college athletes. (And, it's worth mentioning at this point that only one of the 11 points in CAPA's platform involve financial compensation.) For the past century, the NCAA has acted as a government-sanctioned cartel -- a sort of union for employers, to put it more politely than is warranted -- which has allowed them to keep wages artifically low and working conditions far poorer than they ought to be.

Hearing the NCAA's initials spoken aloud might elicit a different reaction from the average person than, say, OPEC does. That's partly because the NCAA spends a lot of money on ad campaigns assuring you that they're a tireless advocate for the best interests of the student-athlete rather than a tireless advocate of the interests of its member institutions. But make no mistake; the NCAA is a cartel.

In an issue of Law and Contemporary Problems from 1973 -- a year that happened well before the advent of the social media that have rotted out the brains of the "me" generation -- James V. Koch, then a professor of economics at Illinois State University, made this very argument.

A cartel has been defined as an organization of firms which makes agreements concerning such matters as prices, outputs, market areas, the use and construction of productive capacity, and advertising expenditures. The NCAA does all of these in the area of intercollegiate athletics in that it:

(a) sets the maximum price that can be paid for intercollegiate athletes;

(b) regulates the quantity of athletes that can be purchased in a given time period;

(c) regulates the duration and intensity of usage of those athletes;

(d) occasionally fixes the price at which sports outputs can be sold (for example, the setting of ticket prices at NCAA championship events which are held on the campuses of cartel members);

(e) periodically in periodically informs cartel members about transactions, costs, market conditions, and sales techniques;

(f) occasionally pools and distributes portions of the cartel's profits, particularly those which result from intercollegiate football and basketball; and

(g) polices the behavior of the members of the cartel and levies penalties against those members who are deemed to be in violation of cartel rules and regulations.

This kind of large-scale collusion has allowed university athletic departments to employ athletes for much less than the marginal revenue product gained by the university compared to the marginal cost of a scholarship. It's not that room, board, and a college education have no value at all; it's that the sum of those values is far less than the millions upon millions of dollars generated by players of the caliber of Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel.

The great thing about the vast majority of labor markets is that if you don't like the wages and working conditions offered by one employer, there are probably plenty of other places willing to hire someone with your particular set of skills. This is your greatest piece of leverage in any salary negotiation. But if your trade happens to involve playing the sport of football, you have no choice but to deal with the NCAA and its arcane amateurism rules.

In an effort to shrink the labor supply and keep from having to support a costly minor league system, the NFL and the NFLPA funnel every amateur player into the NCAA by requiring that they be three years removed from high school before entering the NFL Draft. Sure, it's technically possible to avoid the NCAA altogether and still earn a living playing football, but the odds of pulling that off are so close to zero that we might as well call them that.

Because major college athletes don't have the option of saying, "No thanks, I'll go work for someone else," they don't have much bargaining power at all. Allowing them to form a union would be a small step toward giving them significant leverage for the first time ever.

After more than 100 years of allowing universities to organize under the banner of the NCAA to promote their best interests, isn't it time that we at least afforded players the same courtesy?