As politicians and college sports officials warned that athletes'
push to be paid as university employees — rather than be compensated
only through scholarships — could lead to calamity at many schools,
the issue began to shift to Washington.
That is where the five-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)
will consider Northwestern's bid to reverse a regional NLRB
director's ruling on Wednesday in favor of the players. The regional
director, Peter Sung Ohr, rejected Northwestern's contention that
its football players are amateur athletes and granted the players
the right to unionize as school employees.
A date for the Washington appeals hearing has not been set.
Northwestern has vowed to explore "all of its legal options" to
reverse Ohr's ruling.
"Our student-athletes are not employees, but students," said Alan
Cubbage, spokesman for the private university that is just north of
Chicago on Lake Michigan.
In Washington, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, a former
president of the University of Tennessee, expressed a similar
sentiment. "This is an absurd decision that will destroy
intercollegiate athletics as we know it," Alexander said.
There has been a growing national debate about whether to pay U.S.
college athletes, particularly at big-time football programs such as
Northwestern. Teams typically earn millions of dollars each season
through television contracts, ticket sales and merchandising.
For years, athletes have complained about receiving no compensation
beyond their scholarships at a time when the business of major
college sports has boomed, with hundreds of millions of dollars in
television contracts leading the way.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) oversees sports
programs for about 420,000 college athletes and reported $872
million in revenue in 2012. It is not a party to the NLRB
proceedings, which pits Northwestern against its football players,
but the NCAA has made clear that it stands with the university in
opposing efforts to unionize and pay college athletes.
"Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities
have worked to re-evaluate the current rules," NCAA Chief Legal
Officer Donald Remy said in a statement.
"While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely
throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students
over the past decade alone attend college."
Northwestern football players say they plan to help build a
nationwide union of college athletes.
Kain Colter, a quarterback for Northwestern, teamed up with Ramogi
Huma, a former University of California-Los Angeles player, to form
a union they call the College Athletes Players Association.
"So proud of my teammates, Ramogi, lawyers and supporters around the
nation! This is a HUGE win for ALL college athletes!" Colter posted
on his Twitter account Wednesday.
COURT BATTLE POSSIBLE
The NLRB's deliberations over Northwestern's appeal could take
months, including hearings and a vote by the board. If Northwestern
loses before the full NLRB, it could take its case to federal court.
If the school refused to recognize any union approved by a vote of
the players, the NLRB, which does not have enforcement powers,
likewise could turn to a federal court under U.S. labor law.
Such obstacles virtually ensure that college sports will not be
upended overnight by Ohr's decision. But in the near term, analysts
say, the decision is likely to put more pressure on the NCAA to
change some of its policies, including whether to offer athletes
some compensation beyond their scholarships.
The Ohr decision "will put additional pressure on the NCAA to change
its rules with regard to what compensation and monies can be paid to
student athletes," said Joseph Farelli, a New York-based labor and
employment attorney at Pitta & Giblin.
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The NCAA, based in Indianapolis, already is facing questions about
the adequacy of its safety protections for athletes, and discontent
with rules that allow the association and its member schools to make
huge profits while barring players from doing the same.
Northwestern's football program generated revenue of $235 million
and expenses of $159 million from 2003 to 2012, according to its
report to the U.S. Department of Education.
In his 24-page decision, Ohr detailed his reasons for ruling that
Northwestern could be considered an employer of its roughly 85
scholarship football players. Ohr focused particularly on the
restrictions the school places on players, and the time they spend
on team duties compared with the time they spend doing school work.
When they agree to play for the Wildcats, Ohr noted, football
recruits get a "tender" that details the terms of their scholarship
offer. Outside employment, social media use and behavior are
restricted. Violations can result in suspension or dismissal from
Players spend 40 to 50 hours a week during the regular season
practicing, playing and traveling to games, and receive scholarship
assistance worth about $61,000 per year, Ohr noted.
"Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time
employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the
players spend on their studies," Ohr wrote.
Ohr's conclusion may bolster nearly identical arguments made in
lawsuits pending against the NCAA.
A proposed class-action anti-trust lawsuit filed last week in
federal court accuses the NCAA of colluding to deprive university
athletes of earning more from their sports than the value of their
scholarships. Another lawsuit challenging a rule that bars players
from earning money from the use of their images is expected to go to
trial later this year.
Under U.S. President Barack Obama, the NLRB's board is controlled by
Democrats, the political party more closely aligned with organized
labor — a factor that could weigh in the Northwestern players'
favor. The congressional elections in November will not change the
The NLRB supervises union elections and polices unfair labor
practices in private-sector workplaces. Labor relations in
government workplaces — including those in state-backed universities
that make up the vast majority of the 120 or so schools with major
football programs — are covered by separate federal and state laws
not administered by the NLRB.
So Ohr's decision, even if it is upheld, would apply only to
Northwestern and the 16 other private universities with major sports
programs. Even so, public universities are keeping a close watch on
what happens in the Northwestern case.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington;
editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, David Lindsey and Lisa Shumaker)
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