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Northwestern Union Movement: What You Need to Know

Northwestern players announced today that they have signed a petition to unionize through the National College Players Association that will be filed to the National Labor Relations Board. If recognized, the union would give athletes representation with the NCAA. We made a list of the most important issues to watch as the story develops:

1. Union Movement vs. O'Bannon Lawsuit

As one anonymous Northwestern players wrote on Reddit, "This isn't about getting paid. What it is about is protection." There will be a lot of comparisons between the union movement and the O'Bannon lawsuit, but really, both parties are asking for completely different things. Former UCLA player Ed O'Bannon is suing the NCAA to get players royalties from television revenue and from use of their likeness. Northwestern's players are not looking for royalties, they're only looking for protection.

The College Athletes Players Association website lists the union's goals: guaranteed medical coverage, minimizing brain injuries, establishing an educational trust, allowing commercial sponsorships for players and securing due process rights. The medical coverage and educational trust points, in particular, have been supported by pay-for-play opponents in the past. Because the union's goals focus on protection, not royalties, they may be more attainable.

2. College athletes would have to be deemed employees

That's what the petition to the National Labor Relations Board is about. As John Infante of AthleticScholarships.net wrote, there is not clear-cut answer here. From his article:

The best comparison to a recent case is the NYU graduate student union which was certified in December. The graduate teaching and research assistants received a favorable decision in 2000, an unfavorable decision in 2004, and settled their most recent complaint with NYU. So the case law is unsettled, especially when trying to predict how the board might rule on undergraduate student-athletes.

Even if Northwestern does win its petition, this would only apply to private universities. Athletes at public universities would have to go through their own state's labor board. This could create a messy situation where athletes at different schools have different collective bargaining agreements. It would be a big headache and might cause the NCAA to make reforms on its own as a potential alternative to having to deal with unions, though it doesn't seem like any compromise would be successful unless athletes get increased representation. No matter what happens, this is going to drag out for awhile.

3. How productive can collective bargaining be at the college level?

Just because players get collective bargaining privileges doesn't mean they'll be successful. Having a union doesn't always translate to getting what you want. It's a step, but it's still hard to achieve mass change quickly. Infante was particularly skeptical of the impact these unions can have:

4. No coverage for non-revenue sport athletes

While this could change, the union is only planning to represent revenue sport athletes right now. That makes sense, logistically, but it could be a major point of contention for the NCAA. When arguing for TV revenue or jersey sales, the exclusion of non-revenue sport athletes makes sense. Those athletes don't make money for the university, people argue, so why should they get more than a scholarship? However, expanded medical coverage and a graduation trust seems to apply to all athletes who are representing the university. It will be interesting to see how the revenue sports/non-revenue sport dynamic plays out, and whether that contributes to the success of the union. Will non-revenue sport athletes have to be included right away, or can a successful framework be established without them?