Right to Unionize Good First Step, but NCAA Athletes Still Have Long Road Ahead

Ben KerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterMarch 26, 2014

USA Today

The voice for college athletes just got louder—and clearer—on Wednesday. 

Following a February hearing between Northwestern and the College Athletics Players Association, the National Labor Relations Board determined on Wednesday that NU players are not in fact student-athletes, but rather university employees. As a result, those athletes, who were led by NU quarterback Kain Colter, are eligible to form a union and collectively bargain. 

A copy of the NLRB ruling can be found HERE. Among the findings, the NLRB claims that it "cannot be said the Employer's [Northwestern] scholarship players are 'primarily students.'" 

The players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three or four month football season. Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies.

No matter which side of the unionization fence you sit on, this is a historic day for college athletics because an athlete's title may soon be redefined. What's more amazing is the swift nature in which the ruling was made, as Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel points out. 

Just because a ruling was made quickly, however, doesn't mean this story is over. Far from it, actually. With this news comes another set of complications, from individual state labor laws to tax issues.

Additionally, there's a distinct difference between employee status at a private university vs. a public university. Scholarship athletes at state universities who wish to unionize must go through their respective state’s labor board.

As ESPN sports business reporter Kristi Dosh tweets, Wednesday's ruling only applies to scholarship football players at private universities. In fact, it doesn't even apply to non-scholarship players at private universities. 

The convoluted nature of Wednesday's ruling certainly gets the ball rolling on unionization, but the push is far from over. For one, Northwestern confirmed in a statement that it will appeal the decision to the NLRB office in Washington D.C. According to CNN's Sara Ganim, Northwestern will have until April 9th to appeal

The university can also appeal to the Federal Appeals Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, per Dosh. From Northwestern's statement: 

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.

Additionally, as John Infante of AthleticScholarships.net tweets above, it's possible that either the NCAA or Congress gets involved to sort the entire situation out on a national scale. Since the NLRB says that players receive compensation for their services, Infante questions what that means for the NCAA's tax exempt status. 

In short, things could get messier before they get cleaned up. 

The unionization push was unique from the Ed O'Bannon and more recent Jeffrey Kessler lawsuits because those suits want to lift restrictions on what an athlete can monetize. Unionization, on the other hand, was never about pay-for-play—though that was a common misconception. 

Rather, it was a platform centered around player safety, scholarship protection, lifting transfer restrictions and the like. Solutions to several of those key issues are likely inevitable, whether it comes from a unionization push or elsewhere. Would money eventually be part of the collective bargaining process? Probably, but a timeline on that is less clear. 

In the meantime, Round 1 has gone to Joe Athlete. The sides are digging in now. No matter how it ends—that's not clear at all—the days of college football as we know it, for better or worse, are numbered. 


Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless cited otherwise.