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Northwestern football players will take the first steps toward unionization in Chicago today, when the College Athletes Players Association, led by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, has a hearing with the local office of the National Labor Relations Board.
The movement to provide compensation to athletes is a complicated one, mainly because different groups are asking for different forms of compensation. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon has sued the NCAA for rights to money garnered from players' likenesses. The College Athletes Players Association is asking for medical and academic protections, not NCAA royalties. However, while the focus of the movement has been on what the players can get from the NCAA, that is of no concern to the labor board. It has one question to answer: Are college athletes employees?
It's a complicated question that could take years to settle by the time it makes its way through the courts -- possibly as far as the Supreme Court.
According to Colter, athletes are already paid, and because that payment is dependent on work, athletes' responsibilities are similar to those of people who are already deemed employees.
"We're already paid in the form of a scholarship and stipend checks we get," Colter said. "That's dependent on us producing on the field, us providing an athletic service to the university. If we don't provide that service anymore, we won't have a scholarship anymore."
There is no clear precedent for this case, because this is the first time in the history of college athletics that players have petitioned to unionize. Today's hearing and a follow-up hearing soon after should provide insight into the strategy Huma decides to use.
For football players, keeping a scholarship is dependent on an activity that falls outside the academic realm. Given Colter's comments about compensation being determined by participation in football, that could be an effective strategy for the players group.
According to William Gould, a labor board chairman during the Clinton presidency, the athletes have a good case. "The principal reason for that is their work -- they have conditions of employment, they have compensation, they're directed and supervised by the coaching staff -- their work is not related to the educational enterprise," he said.
If the group is successful in its petition, the most important result will be the ability for athletes to engage in collective bargaining. That means athletes would have representation regarding their treatment, rather than the current structure, which Colter called a dictatorship.
Unionization also has its risks.
Though collective bargaining might sound good in theory, even professional athletes can have trouble getting their respective leagues to meet their demands. Could college athletes really be successful, or would they be better off if the NCAA reformed to allow substantial player representation within the current structure?
The group only includes football and men's basketball players. Could Title IX regulations force it to include athletes who hold scholarships in other sports?
But perhaps most important to the NCAA, if athletes are deemed employees, its current definition of amateurism -- a definition that helps justify the current power and monetary structure -- would likely end. According to Gould, that ideal has already been compromised.
"When you speak of it as amateur athletics, this is a vast commercial enterprise, and it's hardly amateur," Gould said. "I don't know that we can really call it amateur."