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Unions Will Change College Athletics Forever, Right?

If I want to watch Shabazz Napier ply his trade Friday night in person, it would currently set me back more than $600.

For its entire existence, the NCAA has argued that Napier’s trade was being a student, not being a basketball player. No offense to Shabazz, but no one is paying $600 to watch him take an exam.

For most of its existence, people have mocked the NCAA’s stance. Despite television contracts that are measured in 10 figures, the NCAA steadfastly held to the notion that student-athletes were more the former than the latter.

On March 26, 2014,that façade officially began to crumble.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of former Northwestern QB Kain Colter that college football players can qualify as employees and can unionize.

While the NLRB has rendered a decision, it is far, far, far from the end of this discussion. There will be an appeal. There will be more hearings. This decision applies to private schools, which make up only a fraction of the FBS division, as state universities fall under state labor laws. We are still at least a year, if not much longer, from college athletes forming a union.

But we are one step closer. And the NCAA is now in trouble. Right?

The NCAA appears to always be on the precipice of total destruction, only for it to emerge unscathed. It was almost exactly a year ago that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany implied that the outcome of Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA would result in his conference dropping down to Division III. After we all stopped laughing, we realized that Delany’s point was that paying players would be too much for universities to handle.

That lawsuit is still ongoing but a judge declared that current and former players can no longer seek billions of dollars from the use of their likeness. Sure, the EA Sports’ NCAA Football franchise is dead but the real franchise – college football – is still humming along.

We look ahead to the future of college athletics and there are still a multitude of unanswered questions. The crux of Colter’s complaint focused mainly on safety and academic concerns, which falls outside of the usual complaints that kids deserved to get paid.

There are many fans of college athletics that want the NCAA’s head on a platter. They want to see the institution reduced to rubble. They want Mark Emmert tarred and feathered in downtown Indianapolis live on ESPN so we can watch, enjoy and tweet about it.

Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. Not from unions.

It is important to note that this ruling, even if upheld, merely gives athletes the opportunity to unionize. Will they? The kneejerk reaction is to say yes. But despite the public opinion, I would wager there are a good number of college athletes, particularly those in non-revenue sports, who are okay with the status quo. There were several Northwestern players that expressed similar sentiments during Colter’s hearing.

There is one potential outcome to unionization that should be of particular importance to UConn fans – it could further divide the playing field between the have’s and have not’s. Already this week, we’ve seen proposed new NCAA guidelines that increases the power of the Power Five conferences thanks to a weighted voting system. While it’s not the rumored Division 4, it still gives those conferences more influence to shape the future.

While the Big Ten may never step down to Division III, a union will almost certainly increase costs for the universities. It may not be the true "pay for play" that some clamor for, but the "cost of attendance" stipend will certainly be in play. Addressing Colter’s safety and academic concerns will not be done for free.

Mike Aresco, AAC’s embattled commissioner, has made it clear that the AAC will do whatever it takes to keep pace with the Power Five. But can the AAC truly keep up with the Big Ten and SEC if a union forms? Sure, UConn may have the budget to match – but will Tulane or Tulsa? Is this the point where being left out dooms the Huskies for good?

Of course, there is the real possibility that unionization affects the bottom very little. Colleges already have tremendous infrastructures for athletics – maybe addressing the union’s concerns is merely allotting current resources differently and limiting practice time.

We can only predict so much because there is so much left to find out. By the time this issue is finally resolved, Bobby Petrino will likely have held three more jobs.

But as a UConn fan, you should probably pay close attention. Only the future of the entire athletic program is in jeopardy.

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