The Northwestern football team heads to the locker room after...

The Northwestern football team heads to the locker room after warming up before a college football game against Penn State in State College, Pa. Credit: AP / Gene J. Puskar

With Wednesday's ruling that Northwestern University football players are entitled to unionize, labor law experts anticipate incremental but fundamental change in how college sports will operate.

Legal authorities agree it is likely the decision will be upheld in a hearing by the full National Labor Relations Board -- a step triggered by Northwestern's promise to appeal the regional NLRB judgment.

And then what?

"One thing that has become very clear in recent years about the NCAA," said Baruch College law professor Marc Edelman, "is that, while member schools purport not to have money to pay their athletes, the association overall seems to have limitless funds to litigate."

Once in court, "how this all works out," said Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams, "I don't have the slightest idea. But this will spread like a virus. Whether this alone is going to be the lever that will destroy the NCAA, I'm not sure. But we're not going to see the same NCAA five years from now."

Wednesday's ruling applies only to the scholarship football players at Northwestern, which is a private school; the NLRB has no jurisdiction over public colleges. Furthermore, Northwestern's players have said they are not seeking the NCAA's dreaded pay-for-play route -- only the ability to negotiate over health issues and work environment.

"Northwestern players, if they choose, could agree to a collective bargaining agreement that does not include any compensation," Edelman said. "Nevertheless, the ruling requires Northwestern to at least bargain over such issues."

And such bargaining, said Eric Broutman, who focuses on employment law for a Lake Success-based law firm, "opens a huge door on all sorts of employment laws. Unemployment insurance, workers' comp, minimum-wage laws, paying taxes."

If athletes in the big-revenue sports do choose to include salaries in the negotiations, critics of such a move argue it would financially ruin college athletic departments by requiring pay for all players -- females and those in the low-visibility sports.

Edelman sees no such scenario. "In my opinion, the Title IX argument, shifting attention to female athletes, claiming they will be held victim by this decision -- nothing could be further from the truth," he said. Edelman cited a 1994 case involving the University of Southern California in which an appeals court ruled that "different levels of compensation for college coaches may be permissible if the respective coaches and their programs produce different levels of revenue."

The same would hold true, he said, in differentiating pay to athletes in big-revenue and non-revenue sports. Furthermore, Abrams said, universities have plenty of practice in moving money into endeavors they most value.

"There can be reallocation of resources," Abrams said. "Coaches all make millions of dollars now while the kids make bubkes. But employers routinely deal with a number of unions, like the city with cops and firefighters. There is money. All the collective bargaining does is allocate that money commensurate with good arguments."

One thing is clear: "This is a watershed moment," Abrams said. "This is Brown vs. Board of Education."

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