NCAA, Northwestern percolate in shadow of union vote

Teammates celebrate with Northwestern defensive lineman Tyler Scott, Teammates celebrate with Northwestern defensive lineman Tyler Scott, right, after he intercepted a pass against Illinois during the second half of a game on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, in Champaign, Ill. Photo Credit: AP / Jeff Haynes

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Already the results of Friday's Northwestern football players' vote on whether to unionize -- unlikely to be known for months -- don't appear to matter.

Amid the wide-ranging conversation on treatment of college athletes, at full boil since the March 26 National Labor Relations Board ruling that Northwestern athletes qualify as college employees, a vague panic appears to have set in among Northwestern and NCAA officials.

As both the school and NCAA have campaigned vigorously against unionization, including Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald characterizing a "yes" vote as a personal affront, they simultaneously have moved to provide interestingly timed new benefits and perks.

The iPads it recently gave its players, Northwestern contended, were unrelated to the impending vote, and the NCAA announced a plan to grant autonomy to its five largest conferences for funding scholarships and handling health care and other athletes' issues.

On Thursday, the NCAA added a food bonus: Its scholarship athletes now will be provided all the snacks they want beyond the usual three meals a day.

"Already, life has changed," said Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams, an expert on sports law. Even if Northwestern's players voted "no" Friday -- a simple majority of 39 among the 76 scholarship athletes was required to unionize -- "college sports is changed forever.

"If I'm a player at Stanford, I want my iPad!" Abrams cracked. "If I'm playing for Michigan or Ohio State, I'm going to demand my unlimited snacks."

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The point is that, no matter where this leads, "every football player in the country can now say, 'You can't mistreat me, or I'll form a union,' " Abrams said. "I'm not convinced that a union is a good idea. But I do think the NCAA is a mess."

In a Huffington Post blog earlier this month, Abrams suggested that the NCAA is about to go through some form of "reconception." Aside from the Northwestern case, a June 9 trial is set for former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon's antitrust lawsuit related to the use of player names and images, and sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler filed a class-action suit in March arguing the NCAA unlawfully caps the value of players' athletic scholarships.

The NCAA's tortured logic of calling its athletes "students first" essentially was shot down in the NLRB decision that cited players' workloads of 40 to 50 hours a week, while the NCAA and its coaches and athletic directors keep the billions of dollars in profit.

"When you read [the NLRB decision]," Abrams said, "you feel for how much this is a full-time job for the kids. Then they're going to go to physics and chem?"

He recommends a voucher system for athletes "to complete their pre-professional playing careers, then go to college. They still would be part of the student body, even though they certainly are employees."

On Thursday, the full NLRB board agreed to review its regional ruling, and that panel's conclusion will be made public before Friday's Northwestern vote is unsealed. (Possibly not for a month or two.) Legal experts overwhelmingly expect the original decision allowing unionization to be upheld.

A "yes" vote by players likely would result in Northwestern refusing to negotiate with the new union, which would send the dispute to the U.S. Court of Appeals, adding as many as 18 more months to the process. A "no" vote theoretically would end the exercise.

Except, as Abrams said, "already, life has changed. This is not going to go away."

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