The Northwestern union saga came to an end Monday with the NLRB's decision to not quite make a decision and subsequent dismissal of the College Athletes Players Association's attempt to unionize. The fact that the NLRB declined to rule on the case puts an end to this singular case at Northwestern, but not to a potential larger-scale unionization petition in the future. Because of that, much of the issues surrounding major college sports are still left very much unsolved.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from the NLRB's ruling on the Northwestern football union:
1. Massive, large-scale college athletics reform may need federal guidance from Congress, which is a bad sign for the movement.
Repeatedly in the NLRB's opinion, the Board mentioned that a lack of Congressional direction on the issue made it extremely difficult to rule on the case. This issue points toward Congress eventually needing to act in order to bring about real change. That's problematic for two reasons. First, the NCAA has some really deep pockets. The group boosted its lobbying efforts dramatically in the year since Kain Colter and co. petitioned for a union, in what seems like preparation for a potential Congressional fight. Second, around 108 out of the 125 FBS college football programs are state-run colleges, meaning that state tax dollars fund both the schools and athletic departments. While the federal government has oversight on many state-directed initiatives, it always comes with controversy. Congress asking to get their hands on major college sports will undoubtedly be met with staunch opposition.
2. The unionization of college athletics isn't totally dead, yet.
What began in the spring of 2013 as a meeting between Northwestern quarterback Colter and student-athlete advocate Ramogi Huma blossomed into a national story that centered on Evanston. But, Huma and Colter both hinted at further attempts from student-athletes at other schools to push for collective bargaining rights. The NLRB left the door open to private schools banding together to unionize as one entity in its decision. "We therefore do not address what the Board's approach might be to a petition for all FBS scholarship football players (or at least those at private colleges and universities)," the Board wrote.
3. Kain Colter isn't a villain whose sole goal was to rip amateurism away from college sports.
This tweet caught a lot of people off guard during the hot takes prompted by the NLRB's opinion:
@ESPNRittenberg cost him all his northwestern connections for life.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) August 17, 2015
While I'm sure there is some resentment within the Northwestern athletic community toward Colter, the ill will doesn't seem to be as pervasive as Rovell thinks. While Pat Fitzgerald and Colter had had their differences, Fitzgerald has long been in a supporter of various efforts to make the student-athlete experience better. He and Colter agreed on many issues and pushed the Big Ten and the NCAA toward reform over the past year. Colter and CAPA never aimed to get college athletes paid, just to help make their situations a little more fair. This paragraph from Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples illustrates the impact of Colter's movement in just a short period of time:
Big Ten schools published similar lists [of reforms] last year as well, and the leaders of the ACC, Big 12 and SEC have all gotten behind more money and better continuing medical care for athletes. When those conferences were granted autonomous powers by the rest of the members of Division I, they changed their rules to allow those policies to go into effect. They did not do all of this out of the kindness of their hearts. They did this because they were afraid a court or a regulatory agency was going to make them do it—and in a way far less palatable to them. The similarity in [CAPA's proposed reforms and the actual reforms put in place] is the real victory in the Northwestern unionization effort.