College Football: Put Playoff debate aside CFB suddenly has bigger issue


On Tuesday, the short-term plan for approval of College Football Playoff expansion was put on hold. The hold could be overcome within a few months. If not, CFB Playoff expansion is not likely to happen before the 2026 season.

Many college football fans are disappointed divergent interests and jealousies appear to have derailed what was in June, an almost done deal for a 12-team, Playoff format.

Put that setback aside for now. Why? Suddenly there is an emerging issue that could fundamentally change college football forever.

On Wednesday it was reported National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB), General Counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo stated in a memo that college athletes have rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Abruzzo wrote,

"(NLRB law) support(s) the conclusion that certain players at academic institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment."

Abruzzo implied legal action could be taken against schools and conferences that continue defining players as “student-athletes.”

"The freedom to engage in far-reaching and lucrative business enterprises makes players at academic institutions much more similar to professional athletes who are employed by a team to play a sport, while simultaneously pursuing business ventures to capitalize on their fame and increase their income"

Abruzzo’s memo is, at this point, non-binding and she stated it was written to educate applicable parties for future cases. In 2015, the NLRB considered whether players at Northwestern could petition to form a union. In that review, it was determined players should not be designated as having rights available to employees.

Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University elaborated on Abruzzo’s memo.

"This is an advisory opinion … that college athletes should be recognized as employees … it will not have any immediate impact on college athletes … this is just another signal that the current collegiate model may need to change, and if the NCAA doesn’t change it, change may be forced upon it."

Changes for college football and other high revenue sports

What caused such a turnaround by the National Labor Relations Board? There are multiple factors, but the biggest reason has to be the changes NIL has brought to college sports. The NCAA has long feared its member institutions being forced to pay players for their services. If players are added to the payrolls of schools, they can, as players at Northwestern tried to do in 2015, choose to become unionized. In unionized organizations, bargaining units (the players in this case) are assigned the right to negotiate compensation, benefits, work rules and working conditions.

What such status could mean to the world of college sports is impossible to predict. At the extremes of the possible, college football and also probably men’s college basketball could become something significantly different than it is today. Though it seems absurd, consider one extreme possibility. Players could negotiate working conditions that are in direct opposition to what coaches believe are necessary to build championship programs.

A quick response is, such a situation is no different than today’s NFL. Perhaps that is okay. Perhaps also, financial packages for players could be structured equitably enough they would not harm team chemistry. Big changes are ahead for college sports – in whatever form they eventually become.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg took an early lead on reporting this story.

Check out the SEC’s response below.

Next. How former Tide players are doing in the NFL. dark

Where will this lead and how long will it take to get there is not known. There is an argument that working out the how and when should be a higher priority than rebuilding the CFB Playoff.