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Northwestern Football Players Take First Step Toward Unionization

Tom Farrey of ESPN’s Outside the Lines:

Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition in Chicago on behalf of football players at Northwestern University, submitting the form at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

Backed by the United Steelworkers union, Huma also filed union cards signed by an undisclosed number of Northwestern players with the NLRB – the federal statutory body that recognizes groups that seek collective bargaining rights.

This is the first step in a long process but some initial thoughts:

  • The first step would be a favorable decision by the National Labor Relations Board on whether student-athletes are employees. The best comparison to a recent case is the NYU graduate student union which was certified in December. The graduate teaching and research assistants received a favorable decision in 2000, an unfavorable decision in 2004, and settled their most recent complaint with NYU. So the case law is unsettled, especially when trying to predict how the board might rule on undergraduate student-athletes.
  • Assuming a crushing victory by the student-athletes and union organizers, there would still be the issue of public universities. In theory, student-athletes at public universities who became employees would be state workers, whose unionization and collective bargaining rights are governed by state law. Years from now the end result could be many different sets of rules applied at different public and private colleges in different states because of the different collective bargaining rights.
  • The union, which would be called the College Athletes Players Association, would initially not seek salaries for student-athletes, although the idea of trust fund accessed after graduation is on the agenda. Instead most of the issues are “working conditions” including guaranteed scholarships in the event of injury, better concussion protection and medical care, and full cost-of-attendance scholarships.

All of this begs to be resolved in one fell swoop (at least for the time being) by Congress passing a comprehensive NCAA reform act, which provides the protections the student-athletes are asking for in exchange for avoiding the employee designation and having different NCAA rules on a conference or institutional basis. The question now is whether Congress could get such a bill together and whether the NCAA sees discretion as the better part of valor and federal regulation as the lesser of two evils.

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