Northwestern is one of only 17 private schools in the FBS.
It's important fact to remember when thinking about the ramifications of Tuesday's announcement that Northwestern football players are attempting to unionize. It's because the law of the land that allows them to do such a thing — the National Labor Relations Act — only applies to private groups, be they companies or in this case a university. Unionization among employees who work for private organizations are governed by federal law, while unionization among employees who work for public organizations — such as the overwhelming majority, to borrow a phrase, of the universities that field FBS football teams — are governed by specific state laws.
Therefore, even if Northwestern "wins" and the players earn the right to be part of a labor union, their success will only change the rules for private schools, of which there are only 17 in FBS football (there are far more in D-I basketball, to which Northwestern's fight also applies).
“It’s a little technical, but the National Labor Relations Act only applies to private schools and to private entities. So therefore, maybe they can unionize under the federal law," Chicago attorney Karen Conti said Tuesday on SportsNet Central. "But if you’re talking about a state school, they’re going to rely upon the laws of the states, and in many states we don’t have the right to unionize. So what are we going to do when some of the athletes are going to be union and some of them are not going to be union? I think that’s going to be a really hard thing to do all at once.”
Any decision is a long way down the line, but the implications to college football, were Northwestern players to accomplish their goals, would be massive. Suddenly, benefits and even the possibility of payment would give private schools a whopping recruiting advantage, potentially changing the competitive balance of college football. That SEC dominance? Well, only one SEC school is a private one (Vanderbilt). Meanwhile, the ACC has five private schools, plus an upcoming affiliation with another in Notre Dame.
Add to that potential movements similar to Northwestern's that would have to be fought in each and every state. That would mean, for example, maybe players at schools like Illinois could collectively bargain while players at Wisconsin couldn't.
It's just speculation, of course, but it's a mighty slippery slope that Northwestern began the trip down on Tuesday.
Just to add some more info, here are the 17 current FBS schools that are private: Miami (Fla.), Boston College, Syracuse, Duke, Wake Forest, Southern Methodist, Baylor, Texas Christian, Northwestern, Tulane, Tulsa, Rice, Stanford, USC, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, BYU.