SBD/April 25, 2014/Colleges

NLRB Grants Review Over Unionization Ruling As Northwestern Players Prepare To Vote

The NLRB has granted Northwestern Univ's request to review Regional Dir Peter Sung Ohr's March 26 decision to let the school's football team "vote to form a union, saying the local decision 'raises substantial issues warranting review,'" according to Sandra Guy of the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES. The NLRB said that the vote over whether to unionize "still takes place Friday but ballots will be impounded until the board issues a decision affirming, modifying or reversing the regional director’s decision." There are 76 players eligible to vote. NU Dir of Media Relations Bob Rowley said that a majority of the "actual votes cast is required to authorize a union." NU VP/University Relations Alan Cubbage on Thursday said that the school "is 'pleased' by the NLRB’s review, and noted that the NLRB invited other interested parties to file what are called 'amicus' briefs that offer relevant, additional information or arguments that the board might wish to consider." Meanwhile, a group of former NU football players calling themselves "NU Game Changers" on Thursday indicated that the university can be a "leader in reforming college athletics, regardless of whether the Wildcats football players vote Friday to form a union." The group’s proposals call for increasing athletes’ stipends "to cover personal and miscellaneous expenses, and creating trust accounts for athletes from endorsement and marketing deals that the athletes could use after they graduate" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 4/25). In Chicago, Alejandra Cancino notes both NU and its football players "will have the opportunity to file more documents in support of their positions." College Athletes Players Association President Ramogi Huma in a statement said, "We welcome the review so that college athletes’ employee status can be confirmed nationwide by the federal government" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 4/25).

BALANCE OF POWER: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Douglas Belkin cited experts as saying that regardless of the outcome of the union vote, the "balance of power between student-athletes and the schools they play for has shifted." Univ. of Illinois professor Michael LeRoy said, "This marks a turning point. They are openly questioning the amateur athlete paradigm. This is a signature moment in the history of college athletics." The NCAA on Thursday took the initial steps of allowing the five power conferences to make independent decisions, and West Virginia AD Oliver Luck said, "Changes are coming. There is a lot of discussion about ... what it means to be an amateur athlete in the 21st century." He added that the consensus is that restrictions "now imposed on schools with regard to how they treat players ... need to loosen." Luck: "The demands on the players have just changed a lot since I was a player. I think there is going to have to be a lot more autonomy for the schools to deal with that" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 4/25).

PRESIDENTIAL IMPLICATIONS: ESPN.com's Farrey & Munson cite labor experts and law professors as expecting that the NLRB will agree with Ohr's ruling that the players "are employees and entitled to form a union." President Barack Obama's three appointments to the board "are pro-union and are expected to support a campaign that has been supported by the United Steelworkers" (ESPN.com, 4/25). SI.com's Andy Staples wrote under the header, "Northwestern Union Vote Intriguing, But NLRB Ruling More Significant" (SI.com, 4/24). In Chicago, Teddy Greenstein writes no matter how the players vote, former NU QB Kain Colter, who is leading the unionization efforts, and CAPA have "already won." NU also has "won because now more people know about its 97 percent graduation rate and its policy of awarding four-year scholarships." If the majority of players "vote 'no' to the union, NU coach Pat Fitzgerald will have won too," as he "made this vote a referendum on how he treats his players and whether they believe he has their backs." The "only loser is the lame status quo" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 4/25).
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