The College Athletes Players Association had its first hearing with the National Labor Relations Board today, meaning Northwestern football players' quest to unionize has officially begun. Josh Rosenblat had a good recap of the day's events for InsideNU, Chris Johnson wrote about the proceedings for Sports Illustrated and I did the same for USA Today. Our pieces have lots of facts and logistics, but I'd also like to lay out some of the day's biggest developments a bit more informally, because while the story is complicated, it's also arguably one of the most important stories to come out of Northwestern sports in the school's history. So here's a look at the most interesting things to watch from Wednesday, and going forward.
- The argument from CAPA is pretty much what we expected, given what Kain Colter and former NLRB chairman William Gould have said: College athletes have obligations to maintain their compensation (scholarships) that are unrelated to their obligations as students. That will be the main thing they keep trying to push as they try to prove college athletes are employees.
- Obviously, Northwestern's position is that its players are students. They said the 2004 case of Brown University teaching assistants is solid precedent. In that case, the NLRB reversed a previous decision that said NYU teaching assistants were employees. However, it's not that simple. The NLRB was reconsidering that decision recently, before NYU teaching assistants withdrew the appeal and ultimately gained collective bargaining rights in a compromise with the university. Plus, this board, with President Obama's employees, is more union-friendly than the 2004 board. And even when you don't consider the board's likely biases, athletes might have a better case than teaching assistants, because, as Gould said, their extracurricular obligations fall even further outside the realm of the academic enterprise.
- The university brought up issues about eligibility that figure to play a major role in the case. CAPA is only looking to represent scholarship players, though they said they would expand their scope if the regional director asked them to. The university's lawyers see a problem with scholarship players being deemed employees, but non-scholarship players being deemed students. They also had issues with the fact that seniors will be on scholarship in the two quarters following the end of the season. That means these players would theoretically still have union representation, but wouldn't be required to complete football obligations. CAPA's lawyers didn't really have an answer to these issues, other than to say they these are issues relating to individual eligibility issues, not the main focus of whether athletes are employees. Are these concerns valid in determining whether the scholarship athletes can be deemed employees? The NLRB's answer to that question could decide who wins the case.
- CAPA said they don't believe there are Title IX restrictions, though they didn't give an example of why they thought that. They also said that they chose to start with football and men's basketball players because they feel that will give them the easiest route to a favorable victory. With that statement in mind, it seems pretty clear that they're going to push the fact that scholarships are compensation, and that athletes' service to the university provides enough money to call collegiate sports a commercial enterprise.
- The next hearing, on Tuesday, February 18, will be much more important. Each side will call witnesses, and Colter will be the "star witness" for CAPA, according to lawyer John Adam. CAPA will call other witnesses, but Adam said it would be unnecessary for them to parade a bunch of players to the witness stand. Colter will speak for the NU athletes.
- Adam started his media session by saying that this is "the beginning of the end" of the "exploitation" of athletes. However, he made a point later of saying that not much will change. "I think the NCAA position is somehow, if you do this the world will collapse," he said. "That's simply not true. The revenue is there; all we're asking for is a voice at the table so that these athletes can address their concerns."
- It's important to remember that the athletes' potential demands in collective bargaining will not affect the NLRB's decision. CAPA has made it clear that the main thing NU's players seek is representation. However, they said that if they are given the ability to engage in collective bargaining, they will look for medical benefits, a graduation trust and the ability to market themselves. Monetary compensation has not been a focus — that, among many other things, separates this from the Ed O'Bannon case — but Adam did leave the door open for that to happen eventually if the board rules in CAPA's favor. Still, there's a long way to go until that becomes a possibility.