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NLRB grants NU football players right to unionize

Northwestern quarterback KaColter (2) stiff arms Mississippi State defensive back Jay Hughes (30) during first half Gator Bowl NCAA college

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (2) stiff arms Mississippi State defensive back Jay Hughes (30) during the first half of the Gator Bowl NCAA college football game, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, in Jacksonville, Fla. Northwestern beat Mississippi State 34-20. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)

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Updated: April 28, 2014 10:41AM

Northwestern football players have been granted the right to unionize by the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled Wednesday that they are employees.

‘‘This is a HUGE win for ALL college athletes!’’ former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter tweeted when he learned about the ruling while working out in Florida.

It’s an unprecedented move. In football terms, though, it’s difficult to say if it’s a win or a really good return of the opening kickoff for student-athletes seeking a voice in the multibillion world of college sports. There are so many questions to be answered, so many more skirmishes to come.

But Colter and other student-athletes who share his view are right to believe they’ve scored an early victory. NU and the NCAA obviously think so.

‘‘While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,’’ the NU administration said in a news release. ‘‘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.’’

The NCAA, which has been trying to head off growing criticism and legal confrontations with various olive branches to student-athletes, also objected strongly.

‘‘While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed,’’ NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said. ‘‘We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees. 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.’’

The next big hurdle will be NU’s appeal of the regional NLRB’s decision before the full NLRB in Washington. The United Steelworkers, who bankrolled the NU players’ legal battle, expressed confidence that the ruling won’t be overturned.

‘‘Amazing victory for college athletes,’’ said Tim Waters, the national political director for the United Steelworkers. ‘‘USW has said all along that these athletes are, in fact, employees, and now the NLRB has agreed. Athletes have tried every way possible to get a seat at the table, and this was the only avenue they were left with.’’

Even a victory before the full NLRB would qualify merely as a necessary first down in the big college-sports picture. Because it’s a relatively small, private school that belongs to the wealthiest conference in the country, Northwestern was a natural place to start. But organizing on other campuses would be needed to bring about a major change in college athletics.

The NLRB doesn’t have jurisdiction over public universities, but this ruling opens the door for similar organizing at other private schools.

Another ominous question: If Notre Dame, USC, Duke, DePaul and other private schools wind up playing by different student-athlete rules than state universities, how do they compete against one another or abide by one set of rules with their conference partners?

Many more steps seemingly will be necessary before Colter and others who think major-college athletes ought to have more control over their situations cross the goal line. Between legal challenges and organizing efforts, it’s a process likely to take years.

A union at NU, for example, wouldn’t amount to much in a vacuum. That means similar organizing efforts would be required at campuses across America. This NLRB precedent helps that cause. But with state universities not affected by the NLRB ruling, it’s difficult to predict how far the process
can go.

Still, this victory by Colter’s group raises a mind-boggling number of questions. Among them: How does NU sit at a table with its Big Ten partners when it’s operating under different student-athlete constraints? How would organizing work at smaller schools that don’t have big-time resources but share, for example, in the NCAA tournament pie?

An even larger question is where the non-revenue sports fit into all of this. It’s one thing for football players and men’s basketball players, who generate millions of dollars, to organize and bargain for defined work rules, the right to appeal suspensions, health-care benefits and maybe even a piece of the billions major colleges earn from ticket sales, TV revenue and merchandising.

But what about the swimmers, gymnasts, fencers and field-hockey players? NCAA rules, not to mention Title IX considerations, give non-revenue athletes of both genders a quality of student-athlete life that would be difficult to maintain if unionized players end up costing more.

With so many uncertainties ahead, it’s no wonder NU, the NCAA and their college-sports partners across the nation are concerned.

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