Wednesday's dramatic National Labor Relations Board ruling, that Northwestern University football players qualify as school employees and can unionize, could foretell a tectonic shift in college sports.
Though Northwestern said it would appeal the ruling to the full NLRB board in Washington, D.C., the decision by Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB regional director in Chicago, was a clear blow to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's adamant stand against sharing its enormous profits with athletes.
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Under the current system, athletes' scholarships are subject to renewal each year -- at the discretion of their coaches -- and, beyond those scholarships, the NCAA has rejected calls to pay small stipends to players regardless of the revenue-producing power of such sports as football and men's basketball.
In his 24-page ruling, Ohr wrote that college players "fall squarely within the Act's broad definition of 'employee' when one considers the common law definition of 'employee.' " He noted the players' time commitment to their sport and the direct tie between their performance and the retention of a scholarship justified having union rights.
College players therefore may vote, Ohr wrote, on whether to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association, which submitted the case to the NLRB in January along with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and the United Steelworkers union.
College football, CAPA attorneys argued, is a commercial enterprise relying on players' labor to generate billions of dollars in revenues and therefore creates a relationship of schools to players that is one of employers to employees.
Because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities, the CAPA is first concentrating on unionizing athletes at private schools such as Northwestern. In a statement, the NCAA expressed its "disappointment" in the NLRB ruling and said it "strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees.
"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, and not to be paid," the NCAA said.
But the debate over legal and ethical questions regarding the NCAA's "amateur student-athlete" model has heated up considerably over the past two years. Last fall, football players at Georgia and Georgia Tech competed with gear marked "APU" -- for All Players United -- as a protest against NCAA treatment of athletes on issues of concussions and compensation.
A number of academics have argued, as law professor Elbert Robertson of Boston's Suffolk University has, that the NCAA is a "price-fixing cartel that monopolizes the economic benefits of college sports."
Drexel University sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky, who has written a book, "College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth," has called the "student-athlete" hypocrisy a "moral dilemma that everyone associated with college sports is confronted with on a daily basis."
Just last week, when Ohio State wrestler Logan Stieber won an NCAA title in his weight division, it triggered a bonus of about $18,000 -- not for Stieber but for Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who is paid more than $900,000 annually.
A year ago, when University of Kentucky freshman basketball star Nerlens Noel tore a knee ligament, he learned it was an NCAA violation for him to file an insurance claim to protect the millions of dollars he eventually lost by falling in the NBA draft.
Ramogi Huma, president of CAPA and the 13-year-old nonprofit advocacy National College Players Association, called Wednesday's ruling "expected" and "one giant step closer to justice."
Northwestern answered that "unionization and collective bargaining [are] not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes." Some experts contend that granting athletes employee status raises the possibility of strikes or lockouts by athletic departments.
Oscar Robertson, who was instrumental in a 1970 court decision and 1976 settlement that led to unrestricted free agency in the NBA (and became known as the Oscar Robertson Rule), said Wednesday at a news conference celebrating Madison Square Garden's college basketball history: "You can give a coach $5 million a year, give him a shoe deal, make the kids on your team wear your shoe. But if a kid gets hurt in college, it can be the end of his career, or you can take his scholarship after one year. You can use his likeness on cards or whatnot, which is what the NCAA does.
"I think they should be paid money. Why shouldn't they be paid money? Who says a scholarship is worth anything at all? Maybe they shouldn't be on scholarship, maybe they should be paid for playing."
With Mark Herrmann