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NLRB rules in favor of Northwestern football players hoping to unionize

Mar 26, 2014, 4:56 PM EST

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With the NCAA tournament in full swing, an issue that has the potential to significantly impact the future of college athletics shifted to the back burner. With the National Collegiate Players Association aiming to gain greater rights for college athletes, a petition was filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago with the hope that the organization would rule that the Northwestern football program meets the standards needed to form a union.

Wednesday afternoon the regional office of the NLRB made its decision, ruling in favor of the players and declaring them to be “employees” as opposed to “student-athletes.” While this ruling would only impact the players at Northwestern at present time, it could set a precedent for scholarship athletes at other universities (private institutions more so than public).

And it should be noted that the ruling refers to scholarship athletes as the ones being able to form a union, as their grant-in-aid represents a form of compensation according to NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr.

The walk-ons also appear to be permitted a greater amount of flexibility by the football coaches when it comes to missing portions of practices and workouts during the football season if they conflict with their class schedule. In this regard, it is noted that both scholarship players who testified, [former Northwestern QB Kain] Colter and [Northwestern OL Patrick] Ward, testified that they did not enroll in classes that conflicted with their football commitments. This distinction is not surprising given that the players are compelled by the terms of their “tender” to remain on the team and participate in all its activities in order to maintain their scholarship.

Predictably, the NCAA has issued a statement disagreeing with the NLRB’s decision, and Northwestern has plans to appeal the decision to the NLRB’s national office.

“Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules,” it was stated in the NCAA’s release. “While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college. We want student athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

While opponents have jumped to state that the arguments against “amateurism” focus on getting student-athletes paid, the NCPA’s goals focus more on medical assistance for athletes and scholarships that meet the full cost of attendance. Will Wednesday’s ruling help the NCPA make greater advances in these areas? That remains to be seen.

The question for college basketball is whether or not some of its student-athletes would look to make a similar move. At present time, while the decisions could potentially impact all sports football appears to be driving the bus. Will that change? Wednesday’s ruling opens the door, but it remains to be seen which program(s) will be next to challenge the current model of “amateurism.”

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