03/28/2014 10:35 am ET Updated May 28, 2014

A Football Slamdunk


Not to mix metaphors, but as I read it, that National Labor Relations Board ruling that footballers at Northwestern are actually employees of the university and thus can form a union looks like a slamdunk.

You've got capital and labor. The university owns the franchise, produces football, and captures hundreds of millions in profits. But the owners play not on the gridiron. They neither block nor tackle, pass nor punt. The players do so, according to the NYT, sometimes for 50 hours a week. That's how they earn their scholarships. That's "earn" in work.

That's labor, and importantly, labor that generates profit. No one's saying these players/workers/students/athletes don't take classes. But this argument by the school makes little sense to me:

Northwestern defended what is considered a sterling academic record: 97 percent of its football players graduate, the highest rate among universities in the top division of collegiate athletics.

The NLRB wasn't buying it:

The ruling centered not on the treatment of players, but on the university's relationship to them.

"Just because they're a good employer doesn't mean they're not an employer," said Tim Waters, the political director for the United Steelworkers, a union that has worked on rights for college athletes for more than a decade.

Wait a minute, you say. So now every student with a scholarship "works" for the school and can collectively bargain? Of course not. Those non-athlete students are not generating revenues/profits for their schools on behalf of their "employers."

And when I say revenue, I'm talking about the television contract for the new college football playoff system at $7.3 billion over 10 years, and the men's NCAA basketball tournament at $10.8 billion over 14 years.

That's the regional NLRB that made this call so now it goes up to the national board. Like I said, you got your capital and you got your labor. Now, maybe you got your union and some more of the fruits of their labor will find its way to the players.

Stay tuned.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.