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Union Not the Answer, But the Threat May Finally Cause NCAA Reform

Jim Phillips' statement was clear as mud: We agree with our athletes, but we disagree.

You couldn't blame Phillips if he was a little off his game. After all, he found out this morning that the majority of his football team just signed a petition to be sent to the National Labor Relations Board that is trying to deem athletes employees of their school.

But that statement, contradictory as it may be, showed a clear step in the right direction for athletes looking to receive representation and protection from their oversight organization. Phillips doesn't want athletes to have the right to collective bargaining? Understandable. But by taking such a drastic measure, Northwestern's athletes have made the national discourse on athlete compensation a reality. And by making reasonable, measured demands, they're finding support for their cause, even if not their actions, in the right places.

This isn't the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit. This isn't players asking for royalties from television revenue. This circumvents the debate about whether schools owe their athletes more than a scholarship for the exposure they bring in. Instead, the union movement presents a cause that is hard to argue against: Protecting students.

"Union" is a loaded word that often gets people up in arms. But really, this isn't about the union. In fact, having a union would be bad for both sides. For the athletes, a union could be a symbolic step toward representation, but having a union doesn't automatically lead to better "workplace" conditions. NFL players have a hard enough time bargaining for better conditions, so imagine what it would be like bargaining for players from hundreds of teams all across the country. It's not likely that would be successful.

The NCAA wants to deal with a union even less than the players do. Aside from the obvious loss of power, the union Northwester players are looking to establish would only be available to athletes at private schools. Athletes at public schools would have to establish unions with their state labor boards, meaning the NCAA could potentially have to deal with 50 different unions in collective bargaining. Plus, if only private schools are allowed to unionize in the early stages, those schools would benefit from an imbalance in recruiting.

Nobody will benefit from unions in college sports, but the reality of them — not just the idea — might be enough to promote actual reform within the NCAA.

For too long, the NCAA has been able to get away with rejecting any kind of reform with a blanket response about protecting amateurism. This will lead to players salaries, they say. It will end non-revenue sports, violate Title IX and ruin athletic department budgets. They gave another one of those unreasoned responses today.

The NCAA has an argument that putting players on salaries undermines education and amateurism. Whether it's wrong for players to be salaried is a different topic, but it's true the NCAA argument in this case at least makes sense. But the Wildcat football players were quick to point out that they don't want salaries or royalties. They just want protection, as one anonymous NU player wrote on Reddit. Those goals were reaffirmed by the College Athletes Players Association website, which states that the players are asking for a trust fund to help them graduate after their eligibility is up and better protection against concussions, among other things.

So back to that NCAA response... what?

The NCAA is seriously going to try to argue that helping players graduate undermines education? You know what really undermines education? The current model, which tells them to skedaddle. The NCAA has now run into the problem of having to defend itself against an opposing party that is asking for exactly what the NCAA says it wants to offer. It doesn't have a response, and the Northwestern players are betting on that.

Jim Phillips doesn't believe in collective bargaining for athletes? Fine. But he believes athletes should be protected and be able to finish their education. This is a cause pay-for-play opponents can stand behind. Athletic departments are realizing they can reason with athletes to provide essential benefits without doing away with the entire amateur model. Paraphrasing Phillips again, you can agree and disagree, and still accomplish something. That terrifies the NCAA, though it shouldn't.

In a perfect world, there will be no union. And that's okay, because the goal of this movement isn't about ditching the NCAA, it's about protecting athletes and allowing them to receive representation. There's a way to do that inside the NCAA model, and it's long overdue, though the tide finally appears to be turning as more athletic departments begin to accept the need for substantial reform.

Initiating that reform, not forming a true union, could end up being the union movement's biggest accomplishment.