Big 12 Commissioner Predicts College Athletes One Day Will Go On Strike

"Mark my words. We will see that in the years ahead."
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter led a union drive among the school's football players.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter led a union drive among the school's football players.

WASHINGTON -- College athletes at Northwestern University lost their effort to form a union in August when the National Labor Relations Board declined to rule on their case. But while officials at the NCAA and its member conferences might be relieved that the issue of unionization is settled for now, that particular fight may take an even more direct form in the future, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby predicted Monday.

“There will be a day in the future when the popcorn is popped, the TV cameras are there, the fans are in the stands, and the team decides they are not going to play,” Bowlsby said at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “Mark my words. We will see that in the years ahead.”

There have long been rumors of players considering walkouts before major collegiate sporting events, particularly the men’s Final Four or a prominent football bowl game, and at times players have taken symbolic action. The University of Michigan’s famed Fab Five wore blank warm-up shirts before games in 1993 to protest their belief that they were “cogs in a money-making machine.” The Northwestern labor movement, meanwhile, grew in part out of a 2013 protest in which players in various college football programs wore wristbands bearing the slogan, “All Players United.”

Bowlsby made the prediction during a wide-ranging speech that covered numerous ideas for reform within the NCAA, the billion-dollar behemoth that oversees college athletics. The NCAA, Bowlsby noted in an interview with The Huffington Post earlier this month, remains “under siege” as lawsuits and even congressional action threaten its long-held tenet of amateurism and the belief that compensating athletes would compromise the integrity of collegiate sports. 

Former Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee dons wrist tape bearing "APU" during a 2013 game against North Carolina. Players arou
Former Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee dons wrist tape bearing "APU" during a 2013 game against North Carolina. Players around the country wore "All Players United" slogans to protest the NCAA.

The Big 12 commissioner has positioned himself as a reformer within the college athletics world, and on Monday, he touted his support more than 20 years ago for scholarships that cover the entire cost of attendance. The NCAA finally approved full cost-of-attendance stipends for athletes in January, and it also has made other changes to benefit athletes as it attempts to stave off the threat of antitrust lawsuits like those brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and current and former players represented by prominent sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler.

The NCAA is currently appealing a federal judge’s 2013 ruling in the O’Bannon case that gave athletes limited rights to revenue generated off the use of their names, images and likenesses. The Kessler suit seeks an injunction that could create a free market for the services of college athletes.

In his speech Monday, Bowlsby cycled through a number of other potential reforms that could come up for consideration, including further limits on time spent on sports, efforts to curb high rates of athletic transfers, restricting sports to a single semester, or even broader changes toward an end to the current conference-based model.

Internal changes are a must, Bowlsby said, to further help athletes and to prevent continuous legal fighting.

Many of the potential reforms Bowlsby posed would help promote the stated NCAA mission of educating athletes, a goal Bowlsby said he "still believes in." Though that may address some of the issues raised in the Northwestern movement, it might not answer the central question of the broadest legal challenges: whether athletes deserve the right to compensation.

Even while anticipating a potential walk-out, Bowlsby held firm to his belief that athletes should not be compensated beyond the full cost of college.

“There is a good and appropriate reason to pay every nickel of what it costs to go to college. There is not a compelling case, in my estimation, to pay above that,” Bowlsby said. “I think once we get above that, we’re on a very slippery slope. And then it just becomes a matter of how much.”

Still, he acknowledged that compensation will remain a source of conflict. Bowlsby recounted a recent conversation with a college basketball player during a trip to one campus. Like the Northwestern athletes and the NLRB regional director who issued the first major ruling in their case, the player saw himself as an employee of his athletic program.

“The tensions in the system,” Bowlsby said, “aren’t going away anytime soon.”