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NLRB: College Athletes Can Unionize

Is this the first domino falling in the ultimate demise of the NCAA?

Matt Marton-USA; TODAY Sports

A while back there was a discussion on GGN regarding the dubious amateur status of Division 1 college athletes, particularly football players.  The issues of whether the players were really professional athletes and only pseudo students, whether they got paid nearly enough considering the revenues they generate for schools and the NCAA, whether athletic scholarships should be abolished, and whether the NCAA college athletics monopoly would eventually crumble were all discussed.  In a stunning development today, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that college football players at Northwestern University, and by extension all private universities, may unionize (public universities are not within the NLRB's jurisdiction).  The decision by the NLRB means it agrees football players at the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law.  As such, their amateur status is very much in question.  Northwestern plans to appeal the decision.

Outgoing Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter took a leading role in establishing the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, which would likely lead the players' unionization efforts.  Colter said nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on the Wildcats roster backed the union bid, though he was the only player to publicly express his  support.

CAPA  argued that college football is a business, which relies on players' labor to generate billions of dollars in revenues. That makes the relationship of schools to players one of employers to employees.  CAPA argued, and the NLRB agreed, that scholarships are in effect employment pay. Northwestern argued that the scholarships were not employment pay, but rather more like grants given to many students for various talents.

CAPA  is seeking, among other things, to guarantee coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, to establish better protections against head injuries and to allow players to pursue commercial sponsorships.

Giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize could have far reaching effects for college sports, including the possibility of player strikes, as well as the possible demise of the NCAA's byzantine amateur status rules and regulations.

This decision is just the tip of the iceberg.  The NCAA  is currently embroiled in a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.  In short, the NCAA is under siege for the way it treats college athletes, and perhaps deservedly so.

The NCAA system is, when closely examined, a house of cards, based on the legal fiction of amateur athletes competing for the love of the game, while coaches, schools and the NCAA get the vast majority of the financial benefit of the athlete's efforts.  In reality, college football in particular is a minor league feeder system for the NFL.  Conveniently for the NFL, it neither assumes any liability in connection with its erstwhile minor league system nor  needs to contribute any funding.  It is sometimes seen as inconceivable that the NCAA system could fall.  But the power of the NCAA is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Less than 60 years ago the NCAA was a minor blip in college sports.  No empires last forever.  Could it be that the NLRB decision will ultimately be remembered as the first card being removed, leading to the eventual collapse of the NCAA house?  Stay tuned; things just got very interesting.