As Northwestern’s athletics director in 2015, Jim Phillips opposed an effort by Wildcats football players to unionize, and the university prevailed when the National Labor Relations Board dismissed the athletes’ petition.
Phillips confronts the dispute anew as ACC commissioner.
Two weeks ago, the NLRB’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, issued a memo stating that she believes college athletes are employees of their respective universities. The athletes, she wrote, “have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment.”
Given June’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling against NCAA restrictions on educational benefits for athletes, unionization and collective bargaining feel inevitable, but when I asked Phillips if Abruzzo’s memo had changed his opinion, the answer was an emphatic no.
“These are not employees, and this is not an employee/employer relationship,” Phillips said Tuesday at the ACC’s preseason basketball gathering. “A lot has changed in the last six years since we went through that at Northwestern, and I’ll reiterate what I said before. I was proud of that group of student-athletes. I was. We asked them to be leaders on campus. We asked them to bring up issues that they are passionate about. We’re always supportive of that, and that has not changed over the last six years for me, and I know for the ACC.
“[But] there’s a lot that has happened since that time: Unlimited meals, the ability to transfer, name image and likeness, the list goes on and on. So we’ve made some really good progress. ... Ultimately, we’ll see where the NLRB goes with this, if this ends up being more than just a statement that came out a few weeks ago, and we’ll watch it. But in my heart and soul, I believe in the collegiate model. These are students first and foremost, and they play a sport.”
ACC could move office in Greensboro
Updating the possible move of the conference office from Greensboro, N.C., Phillips said the ACC is also studying the feasibility of relocating within the city. The league moved to its current location near the Grandover Resort in 1997 and has paid off the building.
“That’s the consultants’ viewpoint because the staff has talked about some of the inefficiencies of the current building,” Phillips said during our 25-minute conversation Tuesday. “Adjacencies, size, not big enough meeting rooms, how people are interacting in today’s world, not enough storage. Our digital area is not all up to speed. It’s been a fascinating process. It’s been fair. It’s been honest. No predetermined outcomes.”
As The Times-Dispatch was first to reveal in August, the ACC has retained Newmark, a Texas-based real estate consulting firm, to determine if its headquarters should move from Greensboro, where the conference was founded in 1953 and has since called home. Phillips expects the ACC’s 15-member CEOs to decide next month whether to remain in Greensboro or begin exploring other cities.
Pushing back basketball unlikely
Phillips understands that November college football smothers the start of college basketball but said delaying basketball until December, as some advocate, won’t work.
“The reality is, it almost starts backwards because the NCAA tournament is locked into specific dates that go around the Masters and some other things,” Phillips said. “... I don’t know for a fact, but I would say it would be highly unlikely from a contractual standpoint. ... It would be difficult, unless you decided to shorten the season, and I don’t think that’s in the cards. ... We’ve all signed contracts to produce X amount of basketball content, so you’re not going to shorten the season.”
Phillips is keenly aware how wedded CBS is to have televising the men’s Final Four the week before the Masters, the first major championship on the golf calendar. While at Northwestern, he served on the Division I men’s basketball committee and was selected to chair the group this season.
But Phillips had to depart the committee upon taking the ACC job in December because a conference cannot have more than one representative on the panel. North Carolina athletics director Bubba Cunningham represents the ACC.
Like father, like son
Phillips’ son Luke, a middle-distance runner on Notre Dame’s track team, serves on the ACC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and joined his peers on that panel in writing a letter to Congress asking for national standards on name, image and likeness compensation for college athletes.
The NCAA in July began allowing athletes to sign NIL deals, and many states, Virginia included, have enacted varying guidelines.
“You’re starting to see the inequities that are occurring because we don’t have a national standard,” Jim Phillips said, “because we have now gone to a state-by-state, campus-by-campus type of model. That cannot continue.”
But Congress is preoccupied with larger matters, and Phillips described progress on federal NIL legislation as “slow.”