NCAA Must Be Worried College Football Players Won Bid to Unionize

The walls closed in a little further on the NCAA on Wednesday.
The walls closed in a little further on the NCAA on Wednesday.

After decades of exploiting football players as highly inexpensive labor, the clock may be officially ticking on the NCAA.

Last year, it was the class action lawsuit settled out of court between college football players (past and present) and EA Sports for video game royalties. The Ed O'Bannon lawsuit still dangles over the head of the NCAA like a guillotine ready to sever the head and allow billions of dollars to flow freely.

And on Wednesday, perhaps the biggest whack at the NCAA piñata came from suburban Chicago, as Northwestern football players, led by former quarterback Kain Colter, were granted by the National Labor Relations Board the classification of "employees" of the university and, therefore, granted the right to unionize.

This, friends, is a game changer.

In proving that they indeed deserved the right to form a union, the players had to show that the time commitment to football was equivalent to that of a full time job and that their scholarship (which is their compensation) is tied to their performance. In the eyes of NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr, the players hit both checkmarks, saying in his ruling that they ""fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act's broad definition of 'employee' when one considers the common law definition of 'employee.'"

Ohr also said that the players can vote on whether they would like to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association, which brought the case forward to the NLRB along with Colter and the United Steelworkers union (the equivalent of a sponsor in the union world's Catholic church).

"I couldn't be more happy and grateful for today's ruling, though it is the ruling we expected," said Ramogi Huma, president of both the National College Players Association, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been around since 2001, and CAPA, which was formed in January. "I just have so much respect for Kain and the football players who stood up in unity to take this on. They love their university but they think it's important to exercise rights under labor law."

It's no coincidence that we constantly hear coaches and administrators refer to the players as "student-athletes." That's not a term they use just for decoration. At the core of the NCAA's business model, which in football particularly is built on a relatively microscopic player labor cost compared to the revenue generated, is the necessity that the athletes be referred to as students, which for decades has been enough to skirt the "employee" designation and all of the ripple effect benefits, like salaries, healthcare, and workers' compensation.

On Wednesday, the NLRB's ruling knocked a huge leg out from underneath the NCAA monster.   "The NCAA invented the term student-athlete to prevent the exact ruling that was made today," said Huma. "For 60 years, people have bought into the notion that they are students only. The reality is players are employees, and today's ruling confirms that. The players are one giant step closer to justice."

Not surprisingly, entities that have profited greatly off of the backs of the football players lined up to voice their displeasure. Northwestern has indicated they will appeal the ruling to the NLRB's national office in Washington, D.C. In a statement, they said the following:

"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes."

NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy chimed in:

"While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees. We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees.

"Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. 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."

And finally, the Big Ten conference added their disagreement in a statement that read as follows:   "While we respect the process followed by the National Labor Relations Board, we disagree with the ruling. We don't believe that student-athletes are university employees. The issues raised during the hearings are already being discussed at the national level, and we believe that students should be a part of the conversation."

Colter was understandably overjoyed, tweeting "This is a HUGE win for ALL college athletes!" before adding that he was "confident" the Northwestern players would vote to unionize.

The bottom line was the bottom line, as the NLRB felt that the football scholarship was not sufficient compensation for the players' time investment and potential health risks. Additionally, CAPA's specific goals include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, ensuring better procedures to reduce head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.

For now, CAPA is pursuing rulings like this for private institutions, as the NLRB has no jurisdiction over state run schools, which coincidentally make up a vast majority of the Big Ten conference in which Northwestern resides.

The ruling raises some fascinating questions and possibilities:

1. Unionization allows players to protest via strike. How much power exactly does that give to players over working conditions, player treatment, and general dissatisfaction if, say, they as a group become disenchanted with the coaches? How fascinating would it be to see a team become so disgruntled that they went on strike the week of a big game? (Doubtful, I know, but legally possible when unionized.)

2. How does the NFL feel about their completely free de facto minor league system all of a sudden unionizing? Do they care? Does the inclusion of a "concussion awareness and treatment" element reduce the NFL's exposure to potential concussion lawsuits from former players, as essentially this is proof of some tacit acknowledgment that CTE triggering concussions could easily have occurred when a player was in college, not on the NFL's watch?

3. How will this effect Kain Colter's status in the eyes of the NFL? Will they see his involvement as a sign of intelligence and determination and strength, or will they see him as a rabble rouser and a potential locker room politician? (Note: One thing they don't see him as? A quarterback. He's been working out for teams at wide receiver.)

4. How ironic is it that a potential ruling that strikes at the heart of the "football factory" mentality comes from Northwestern, which is actually one of the top academic schools in the nation, and within the framework of the Big Ten, the opposite of a football factory?

Whatever the answers, one thing is certain -- the walls closed in a little further on the NCAA on Wednesday, their day of reckoning getting closer and closer.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at

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