The game is only in the first quarter but the players have taken an early lead over the NCAA.  A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago connected on a long field goal for the football players at Northwestern University yesterday when he ruled they have the right to form the nation’s first college athlete’s union.

In essence, the regional director agreed with the claim by the athletes that they qualify as employees of the university and, as such, have the right to negotiate contracts.  There are a number of interesting aspects to this case that leave much of it dangling, with a number of issues that need to be resolved.

The Northwestern football players, or, as they are now known, CAPA, the College Athlete’s Players Association, are being funded by the United Steelworkers.  One doesn’t have to dig deep to uncover the motives there, and they likely have less to do with the athletes best interests and more to do with creating new membership for the union.

Another aspect of the ruling is that only athletes from private colleges are eligible to join CAPA because athletes at public shools have to petition for unionization through state boards.  While the ability to unionize and negotiate for payment from the colleges may give private institutions a recruiting advantage, it may also be too expensive an advantage for them to legally maintain, in terms of meeting the equality requirements of Title IX.  While the football players may claim it’s their union, NCAA membership requires that similar opportunities be provided to female athletes.  Failure to meet that requirement may cost an institution it’s NCAA status.  The athletes’ reason for unionizing is to collect a share of the 16 billion dollars in NCAA revenues they claim they are primarily responsible for.  Catch 22.

If athletes at state institutions do petition for, and gain, union status as employees of a university, they would then become state employees, which might make them eligible for state employee benefits, such as lifetime health insurance and pensions.  It will be a difficult game for the players to win if it’s not played on a level field, with athlete compensation at private schools falling short of the compensation at public schools, turning the tables and putting the privates at a disadvantage.

The basis for the employee status set down by CAPA is that the players are already paid by the institutions, that payment in the form of scholarships, which leads to another interesting situation.  Are players who only recieve partial scholarships part time employees, and, if so, are they ineligible for union membership?  What about non scholarship players?  If the colleges wanted to play hardball they could remove scholarships by definition and offer academic assistance on a need basis only, or, as some Ivy schools do, offer academic scholarships to athletes, removing CAPA’s definition of “employee”.

If recieving a scholarship does qualify as a payment and, thereby, employee status, does that make every student who recieves an academic scholarship an employee of the institution, eligible to negotiate further payment and eligible for all employee benefits?  While players willing to accept the new terms of their status at a university, non athletic scholarship “scholarships”, with no other amennities, will be able to play college football, those who don’t would then have to find another avenue for developing themselves for professional employment in a sport in which development between the ages of 18 and 21 is much more critical than in any other sport, making them less attractive to the NFL than the players who decided to stay in college, non unionized.

The players at Northwestern scored on their first possession, but Northwestern has already announced plans to take this to the full NLRB in Washington D.C. and to the supreme court if necessary.  The NCAA, at this point, hasn’t even gotten involved, only offering interested commentary from the sidelines.

The Northwestern players have the early lead, but football is a long game and it’s never decided in the first quarter.

With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.


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