Northwestern University football players have the right to form a union, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday, setting the stage for potential dramatic change to the college sports landscape.
Peter Sung Ohr, in Chicago, ruled that "players receiving scholarships from the employer are 'employees'" and ordered that an election be conducted to determine whether Northwestern players wanted representation by the College Athletes Players Assn. for the purposes of collective bargaining.
Northwestern will appeal the decision to the NLRB in Washington. That probably will not be the final step in a process, that could eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
If the ruling stands it could affect other private universities such as USC. The NLRB does not have jurisdiction over public universities.
Ramogi Huma, president of CAPA, which has pushed for changes in college sports and was the petitioner in the case, said, "Obviously, we're very pleased" and that he was confident the Northwestern players would prevail. The players' case has been underwritten by the United Steelworkers union.
"Sixty years ago, the NCAA invented the term 'student-athlete' to avoid this day," Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, said in a phone interview. "Because the Northwestern players showed courage, today did come. And players are one giant step closer to justice."
Northwestern was "disappointed" by the ruling, Alan K. Cubbage, vice president for university relations, said in a statement.
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it," the statement said. "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."
Cubbage said the university planned to appeal and "will continue to explore all of its legal options in regard to this issue."
William B. Gould IV, a professor emeritus at the Stanford University Law School and a former chairman of the NLRB, said the decision was "by no means a surprise" and that it could wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"One upshot of this decision is, whatever happens, this is going to be good for student-athletes," Gould said in a phone interview. "They will be treated more cautiously and generously than in the past."
Michael D. Ryan, an attorney in Century City who focuses on labor and employment, said Wednesday's ruling was the first step in a process. "It's early in the game," he said. "It's certainly not the fourth quarter."
"What it's going to do," said Ryan, who played football at Washington in the mid-1960s, "is put pressure on the system to change. And I hope it does."
Paul Haagen, co-director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University, said it was "extraordinarily" difficult to predict how the case would play out because of the political nature of the NLRB and an open timeline.
Haagen said the case was now part of a larger national discussion about college sports.
"There are a lot of things going on simultaneously that are basically a concerted attack on the notion of amateurism, at least as it applies to the power conferences in football and men's basketball," Haagen said.
The NCAA is not part of the Northwestern case. However, the organization that oversees much of college sports is in the midst of defending itself in several major lawsuits.
"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," Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said in a statement. "We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees."
Some of CAPA's goals, according to its website, are: guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players; reduced contact in practices and placement of independent concussion experts on the sidelines; establishing an educational trust fund to help former players complete their degrees and reward those who graduate on time; increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships; and securing due-process rights.
USC Athletic Director Pat Haden said he was not surprised by the ruling. Haden has advocated for changes in NCAA rules including a call for scholarships covering the full cost of attendance. He said he would follow the case as it makes its way through the appeal process.
"At USC, we do as much as we can within the confines of the NCAA rules," Haden said, adding, "I've looked at what some of the Northwestern athletes are asking, and we provide most of those things… All of us in athletics, and certainly myself, believe we need to do more for our student athletes."
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