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College athletes can unionize, federal agency says

CHICAGO (AP) — In a stunning ruling that could revolutionize a college sports industry worth billions of dollars and have dramatic repercussions at schools coast to coast, a federal agency said Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation's first union of college athletes.

Questions, answers about college union ruling

TIM DAHLBERG, AP Sports Writer

 

A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that Northwestern football players could unionize. Does that mean some players will be able to organize and get better health care and academic support? Or does it spell the end of college sports as we know it? The AP takes a look at all sides of the issue.

 

Question: Who came up with the idea of unionizing football players at Northwestern and why?

 

Answer: Outgoing senior quarterback Kain Colter began the process by helping form the College Athletes Players Association, which is also affiliated with the National College Players Association, an advocacy group in California. Colter, who wanted to go into medicine but couldn't because of the time he spent playing football, said the main thing he wanted was to make sure player medical needs were met, even after graduation.

 

"If we are making sacrifices like we are, we should have these basic protections taken care of," Colter told ESPN. "With the sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of."

 

The football players are backed by the United Steelworkers, which provided lawyers and other help in seeking the NLRB ruling.

 

Q: What does winning this decision mean? Will Northwestern players soon be walking a picket line?

 

A: No, and there's a chance they may not end up unionized at all in the end. The decision by the regional NLRB director is an important one for the athletes to have a chance to move forward, but Northwestern says it will appeal to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C., and there is no timeline on how long a decision from the board would take to come down.

 

"This is not a final board decision," said NLRB spokesman Gregory King. It's a regional director's decision."

 

Q: Who does this affect?

 

A: Northwestern, for now, though there surely will be copycat efforts at other private schools should the full NLRB uphold the ruling that the players can organize as a union. The NLRB does not govern labor matters at public institutions, but it's hard to imagine there wouldn't be wholesale changes at those schools, too, should the union be successful in bargaining for working conditions at Northwestern.

 

Q: Does this mean college players will be paid?

 

A: No, though there are other developments in various lawsuits that might in the near future lead to increased stipends for college athletes. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon's antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA is due to go to trial on June 9 in California, and a win could change the way college athletics are governed. An effort by NCAA president Mark Emmert to add $2,000 stipends to the scholarships of athletes failed a few years ago because of opposition by smaller schools, but experts say they believe players in the major conferences will in the near future be paid beyond room and board.

 

Q: If they're not getting paid, what do the players want?

 

A: A seat at the table when it comes to decisions that might affect their health and future. Players say they want more research into concussions and other traumatic injuries, and reasonable limits on hits taken in practice. They also want insurance to cover medical costs, and guarantees that they will be covered for medical issues that might arise later from their days playing football.

 

"The key issue at Northwestern is negotiating better protections against concussions and improving medical coverage following graduation," said United Steelworkers president Leo W. Gerard.

 

Q: What does this mean for the future of the NCAA?

 

A: Nothing at the moment, though anything that interferes with the organization's model for so-called amateurism in college sports may eventually force some major changes in the way big time college sports are operated. Already there is talk in the major conferences on restructuring the NCAA and giving athletes a larger voice in their affairs. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said last month that a victory by the players would mean the NCAA would likely seek "guidance from Congress" on how college athletics should be governed.

 

Combined with the antitrust lawsuits, there seems to be a gathering momentum for change that could alter the college sports landscape.

 

"This is a colossal victory for student athletes coming on the heels of their recent victories," said Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust law. "It seems not only the tide of public sentiment but also the tide of legal rulings has finally turned in the direction of college athletes and against the NCAA."

 

Q: How much money are we talking about?

 

A: Tons. Big-time college programs take in more than $100 million a year from basketball and football, and the big conferences are awash in cash from both television contracts and their own networks. The NCAA has a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract for the basketball tournament, while ESPN and the major conferences signed a 12-year deal for a new college football playoff package that is reportedly worth $7.2 billion. Northwestern's football team generated $30.1 million in revenue last year, with $21.7 million in expenses, and those numbers pale in comparison in its own conference with powerhouses like Michigan and Ohio State.

The decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board answered the question at the heart of the debate over the unionization bid: Are football players who receive full scholarships to the Big Ten school considered employees under federal law, thereby allowing them to unionize?

Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB regional director, said in a 24-page decision that the players "fall squarely" within the broad definition of employee.

Pro-union activists cheered as they learned of the ruling.

"It's like preparing so long for a big game and then when you win — it is pure joy," said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the designated president of Northwestern's would-be football players' union.

The ruling addresses a unique situation in American college sports, where the tradition of college competition has created a system that generates billions but relies on players who are not paid. In other countries, elite youth athletes turn pro as teens, but college sports are small-time club affairs.

Under U.S. law, an employee is regarded as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers. In the case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers and scholarships are a form of compensation, Ohr concluded.

The Evanston, Ill., university argued that college athletes, as students, do not fit in the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized workers. The school announced plans to appeal to labor authorities in Washington, D.C.

Supporters of the union bid argued that the university ultimately treats football as more important than academics for scholarship players. Ohr sided with the players.

"The record makes clear that the employer's scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school," Ohr wrote. He also noted that among the evidence presented by Northwestern, "no examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend their studies."

The ruling described how the life of a Northwestern football player is far more regimented than that of a typical student, down to requirements about what they can eat and whether they can live off campus or purchase a car. At times, players put 50 or 60 hours a week into football, Ohr added.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said in a statement that while the school respects "the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it."

Huma said scholarship players would vote within 30 days on whether to formally authorize the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, to represent them.

The specific goals of CAPA include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.

Critics have argued that giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize could hurt college sports in numerous ways, including raising the prospect of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments.

For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, such as Northwestern, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities. But Huma said Wednesday's decision is the "first domino to fall" and that teams at schools — both public and private — could eventually follow the Wildcats' lead.

Outgoing Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter took a leading role in establishing CAPA. The United Steelworkers union has been footing the legal bills.

Colter, who has entered the NFL draft, said nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on the Wildcats roster backed the union bid, though only he expressed his support publicly.

He said the No. 1 reason to unionize was to ensure injured players have their medical needs met.

"With the sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of," Colter told ESPN.

The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting 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.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes defray some expenses. Critics say that is not nearly enough, considering players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.

In a written statement, the NCAA said it disagreed with the notion that student-athletes are employees.

"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid," the NCAA said.

All of the big NCAA conferences, including the SEC, also disagreed with the decision.

"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," Michael Slive, the SEC commissioner, said in a written statement.

The developments are coming to a head when major college programs are awash in cash generated by new television deals that include separate networks for the big conferences. The NCAA tournament generates an average of $771 million a year in television rights itself, much of which is distributed to member schools.

Attorneys for CAPA argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players' labor to generate billions of dollars in profits. The NLRB ruling noted that from 2003 to 2013 the Northwestern program generated $235 million in revenue — profits the university says went to subsidize other sports.

During the NLRB's five days of hearings in February, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald took the stand for union opponents, and his testimony sometimes was at odds with Colter's.

Colter told the hearing that players' performance on the field was more important to Northwestern than their in-class performance, saying, "You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics." Asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: "To play football. To perform an athletic service."

But Fitzgerald said he tells players academics come first, saying, "We want them to be the best they can be ... to be a champion in life."

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