SBD/March 27, 2014/Colleges

NLRB Rules NU Football Players Can Unionize; Decision Could Be "First Domino To Fall"

Colter and CAPA are seen as having scored an early victory with the decision
The "stunning decision" made yesterday by National Labor Relations Board Regional Dir Peter Sung Ohr that Northwestern Univ. football players on scholarship are employees of the school has the "potential to shake up the world of big-time college sports," according to a front-page piece by Alejandra Cancino of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. Ohr's 24-page ruling stated that the athletes "may seek collective bargaining status" and can "hold an election to decide whether to unionize." Experts said that the ruling could "have wide impact beyond Northwestern's locker room, potentially influencing other players, schools, and state and federal agencies." The decision also "opens the door for athletes with scholarships at public universities to move more quickly to unionize because state labor boards, which govern public universities, usually follow labor law interpretations issued by the NLRB." NU immediately in a statement said that it will "appeal to the NLRB in Washington, and experts anticipate the case ultimately could be heard by the Supreme Court." Ohr in siding with the union said that the football players "primarily have an economic relationship with the university, which controls and directs their daily activities and compensates them in the form of scholarships, which are worth about $76,000 per academic year if the player enrolls in summer classes" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 3/27). USA TODAY's Kevin Trahan notes Ohr not only agreed with the College Athletes Players Association that NU's football players are employees, he also "discounted the university's claims that CAPA is not a legitimate labor organization, since it only aims to represent scholarship athletes." The school's lawyers "tried to prove that scholarship athletes and walk-ons have the same interests, but Ohr disagreed" (USA TODAY, 3/27). 

WHAT'S NEXT? In Chicago, Herb Gould writes there are "many questions to be answered," but former NU QB Kain Colter and other student-athletes who share his view "are right to believe they’ve scored an early victory." Their next "big hurdle will be NU’s appeal of the regional NLRB’s decision before the full NLRB" in DC. The United Steelworkers, who "bankrolled the NU players’ legal battle, expressed confidence that the ruling won’t be overturned" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 3/27). United Steelworkers Political Dir Tim Waters said of yesterday's ruling, "This was a win on all fronts. We think the NLRB got it right. And we’re pretty happy" (DAILY NORTHWESTERN, 3/27). CAPA President Ramogi Huma said that scholarship players at NU "would vote within 30 days on whether to formally authorize" the union to "represent them." The AP's Michael Tarm noted CAPA's specific goals "include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships." The players' current push is to "unionize athletes at private schools, such as Northwestern," because the NLRB "does not have jurisdiction over public universities." But Huma said that yesterday's decision is the "'first domino to fall' and that teams at schools -- both public and private -- could eventually follow the Wildcats' lead." Colter: "With the sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of" (AP, 3/26).

PLENTY OF QUESTIONS REMAIN: In St. Louis, Dave Matter reports NFL free agent and former Univ. of Missouri WR T.J. Moe "had mixed reactions" to CAPA's agenda and "worried there could be unintended consequences to reshaping the dynamics between athletes and the schools they attend." Moe said, "In any real job, as anyone knows, you can be terminated at any time. In college, you can get terminated for doing something really dumb, but you get multiple chances. ... In the professional world, you’re not treated that way." He added that he is "generally opposed to the idea of unions and would be concerned about backlashes that would harm players financially." Moe: "If you can’t strike up a collective bargaining agreement, what happens? You go on strike. You can’t tell certain kids they’re not going to play football anymore. Most of those kids can’t afford to go to school then. Maybe kids at Stanford can afford to go on strike, but then you’ve just screwed a bunch of kids at Tennessee who can’t afford to pay for school" (ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 3/27). In K.C., Blair Kerkhoff notes there is also "a Title IX question" involved with athletes unionizing. If athletes in the revenue-generating sports "are allowed to unionize and seek compensation, federal law demands gender equity in college sports." NU "could be in violation of Title IX if football players received compensation that wasn’t available to female athletes" (K.C. STAR, 3/27). A DENVER POST editorial states if football players unionize, it will "drive college sports in an unhealthy direction, further undermining the integration of true amateur athletes into student life, which enriches the overall campus atmosphere" (DENVER POST, 3/27).

CHANGE IS ON ITS WAY
: In N.Y., Strauss & Eder in a front-page piece write Ohr's ruling "could give momentum to those who believe the NCAA should modify its rules on how athletes are compensated." ESPN's Jay Bilas said, "It’s another brick being taken out of the castle the NCAA has constructed. It’s not going to stand forever, and we’re getting closer and closer to it tumbling" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/27). In Chicago, Steve Rosenbloom wrote the players' push for unionization "appears to be the most powerful blitz on a massive, multibillion dollar NCAA institution facing several significant assaults." The NCAA is "heading toward seismic change." There is "too much momentum working against the NCAA for it to dig in the way it always has," a strategy that "doesn't look like it's working" (CHICAGOTRIBUNE.com, 3/26). SI.com's Andy Staples writes yesterday's ruling "should serve as the tipping point for the NCAA and the leaders of the schools in the five wealthiest conferences to realize it's time to stop fighting and start bargaining." Staples: "If the people in charge of college sports don't want to see the system they've created come crashing down in a courtroom or a bureaucrat's office or in the halls of Congress, it's time to invite the athletes to the table -- unionized or not -- and hammer out a deal with which everyone can live" (SI.com, 3/27). In N.Y., William Rhoden writes the NLRB's ruling "pulled back the veil of big-time college athletics." The NCAA "must loosen its iron-fisted grip on revenue-producing athletes, must give them more rights, more benefits and greater flexibility to sign with agents and explore the possibility of turning pro without losing eligibility" (N.Y. TIMES, 3/27).

FIGHTING A LOSING BATTLE? Univ. of Illinois law professor and author Michael LeRoy believes that the players "ultimately will lose this case," as the NLRB has "never before considered college athletes as employees as it has with graduate and research assistants." He added that even if the appeals process "goes against the football players, the case still could go a long way to gaining more rights for college athletes." LeRoy: "Legally, I think Northwestern and the NCAA will prevail. However, I do think this case will leverage a process by which players achieve greater representation and greater compensation. So I don't think it's a futile effort, even if they lose the legal battle" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 3/27).

NOT THE ROUTE TO GO: In Dallas, Tim Cowlishaw writes the ability to join a union is "hardly what the college athletes need." One of the "great failings of unions tends to be their interest in making sure the least productive or most poorly motivated workers keep their jobs and get their 1 percent raises, same as those workers that do most of the heavy lifting." Cowlishaw: "I’m sorry, the average women’s field hockey player or the No. 5 golfer on the men’s team hardly merits the kind of additional support that LSU’s starting tailback deserves" (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 3/27). In N.Y., Filip Bondy writes if the NU football players are "thinking in terms of greater safety, better health care, humane treatment by coaches and more thorough education counseling, then more power to their union." However, if they "want money, let them establish their own pro development league separate from the college" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 3/27).
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