Whatever your opinion of the news that a large group of Northwestern football players are attempting to attain union representation, know that the legal process that lies ahead could be long and complex.
Ramogi Huma, the founder of the National College Players Association, a student-athlete rights advocacy group formed in 2001, told ESPN.com’s Tom Farrey that an overwhelming majority of Northwestern football players joined former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter in signing a petition requesting protections under the National Labor Relations Act. The petition was filed Tuesday to the Chicago and national offices of the National Labor Relations Board.
What Colter and the other Northwestern players seeking representation by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) want are improved medical protections, guaranteed scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance and a trust fund they can access after their eligibility expires to help cover the costs of education and other medical expenses for injuries sustained during their college careers.
"Money is far from priority No. 1 on our list of goals,” Colter told Yahoo! Sports Tuesday. “The health of the players is No. 1. Right now the NCAA does not require or guarantee that any university or institution covers any sports-related medical expenses. Student-athletes should never have to worry about if their sports-related medical bills are taken care of."
Before any of those measures can be enacted, one fundamental question must be addressed: should college athletes be recognized as “employees” of their universities?
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips released a statement on behalf of the athletic department addressing that very question: “Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration," the statement read.
NCAA Chief Legal officer Donald Remy also issued a statement in response to the union movement:
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.
Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.
Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes."
The next step is for the NLRB to decide whether it agrees with Phillips and the NCAA. To make this decision, it will look at the National Labor Relations Act, a law that governs the requirements for groups seeking unionization. If the NLRB does not agree with Phillips and the NCAA – if it believes Colter and the Northwestern players filing for representation should be considered employees, an unlikely scenario – a major precedent would be set for men’s basketball and football players at other private universities across the country. "Every FBS football player and Division I basketball player at the private schools will be classified as an employee and will be able to join CAPA," Huma told USAToday Sports.
It's important to keep in mind that the NLRB's ruling on CAPA would not affect the collective bargaining rights of revenue-producing student-athletes at public universities. Student-athletes at public universities would need to go through their state's labor board to request they be represented by a union. Resident NCAA expert John Infante explains:
"In theory, student-athletes at public universities who became employees would be state workers, whose unionization and collective bargaining rights are governed by state law," Infante wrote Tuesday. "Years from now the end result could be many different sets of rules applied at different public and private colleges in different states because of the different collective bargaining rights."
A favorable ruling for CAPA could put football programs at public universities at a disadvantage in recruiting. Different states have different policies regarding unionization. The 24 states considered right-to-work states, for instance, "limit opportunities for employees of public institutions, including those employed by state universities, to unionize," explains Sports Illustrated legal analysts Michael McCann. This means that prospective college athletes determined to join a union in college might not even consider programs in right-to-work states. "In theory, this dynamic could disadvantage public universities in right-to-work states while recruiting high school athletes: If those athletes want to be in a college sports union, they may not be able to do so at public universities in right-to-work states," writes McCann.
Another thing to consider is the possibility of Title IX issues. Only men's basketball and football players would eligible to join the union, according to Farrey's report, because they have more bargaining power than other student-athletes. Where does that leave, say, women's lacrosse players? McCann explains:
"Title IX, as we know, demands gender equity in college sports. We could see Title IX lawsuits brought against unionization because of the impact it would have on women’s sports," McCann said in a Q&A Tuesday. "The counterargument is that women’s athletes could unionize, as well, and that’s true. But the reality is male athletes would likely command a lot more money as a union than female athletes would. I think Title IX is a potential issue because the unionized male athletes are going to command money that would seem to tip the balance of gender equity in favor of men."
It’s impossible to predict how long it will take for the NLRB to decide on the matter, but it probably won’t happen for at least a year. The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit – which deals with a separate, but still related, issue – is likely to be resolved first.
Even if the regional board grants the petition, there’s a good chance this will be appealed up to federal court. The final outcome of all of this could involve Congress passing a reform act that implements the measures CAPA is championing without forcing the NCAA to recognize student-athletes as employees. Or the NLRB may rule that student-athletes should not be treated as employees, derailing the movement.
If student-athletes at private (and eventually some public) universities are allowed to unionize, what they can achieve through collective bargaining is unclear. You saw the struggle the NFLPA went through during the 2011 lockout to force the NFL owners to make even modest concessions. What would these "student-athletes" new university employees be able to achieve?