College Athletes Granted the Right to Unionize - Is This the End of the NCAA?

In a ground breaking decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a ruling on Wednesday holding that Northwestern football players qualified as “employees” of the university and therefore had the right to form a union, the NY Times reported.

The ruling in essence now allows players to hold a vote on whether they want to be represented by a union as well as granting them collective bargaining powers with Northwestern over player benefits.

NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr mentioned in the 24-page decision that the player’s time commitment to their sports and the fact that their scholarships, valued at $60,000 per year, are tied directly to their performance allowed them to fall within the broad definition of ‘employee’ under common law.

President of the National College Players Association, Ramogi Human, said he had much respect for the players who stood up to exercise their rights under labor law, ESPN reported.                                                                            

"The NCAA invented the term student-athlete to prevent the exact ruling that was made today. For 60 years, people have bought into the notion that they are students only. The reality is players are employees, and today's ruling confirms that. The players are one giant step closer to justice."

The decision comes as a huge blow to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) which plans on fighting the decision. Northwestern issued a statement after the ruling saying it would appeal to the full NLRB in Washington D.C. arguing that student-athletes are not employees but students and that the decision will throw away a system that has helped millions of students attend college.

“We want student athletes - 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues  - focused on what matters most, finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said.

They say giving employee status to students can hurt college kids in many ways by raising the prospects of strikes by dissatisfied players or lockouts by athletic departments.

Yet, advocates of the ruling say the organization is merely acting out of fear in an epic fight for its life as the decision potentially has the power to threaten its very existence. Not to mention, a ruling of this magnitude could open the floodgates for other university non-employees such as custodial staff, work-study students and graduate teachers to join in the fight for union rights.

The NCAA currently generates billions of dollars from college football and has come under scrutiny before for its amateur, byzantine rules.  It has been criticized for failing to protect players from debilitating head injuries as well as unfairly profiting from players from live broadcasts, all for the indulgence of corporate sponsors.

Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, one of the students who brought the case in January has declared the decision a huge win for all college athletes.  Colter testified that he was steered away from difficult science class and denied his dream of pursuing a career as a doctor.

"For me this was just an opportunity to make things right and stick up for future generations and make up for the wrongs of past generations,” Colter said.

Consequently, the College Athletes Player Association hopes the decision will modify the rules on how athletes should be compensated and lead to guarantees to protect coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players.  What’s more, it is hoped the ruling will allow players to fairly profit and pursue commercial sponsorships, which may one day extend to other division at private universities.

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