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College athletes can unionize, federal agency says

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 02:46 p.m. HST, Mar 26, 2014

CHICAGO >>  In a stunning ruling that could revolutionize a college sports industry worth billions of dollars and have dramatic repercussions at schools coast to coast, a federal agency said Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation's first union of college athletes.

The decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board answered the question at the heart of the debate over the unionization bid: Are football players who receive full scholarships to the Big Ten school considered employees under federal law, thereby allowing them to unionize?

Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB regional director, said in a 24-page decision that the players "fall squarely" within the broad definition of employee.

Pro-union activists cheered as they learned of the ruling.

"It's like preparing so long for a big game and then when you win -- it is pure joy," said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the designated president of Northwestern's would-be football players' union.

The ruling addresses a unique situation in American college sports, where the tradition of college competition has created a system that generates billions but relies on players who are not paid. In other countries, elite youth athletes turn pro as teens, but college sports are small-time club affairs.

Under U.S. law, an employee is regarded as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers. In the case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers and scholarships are a form of compensation, Ohr concluded.

The Evanston, Ill., university argued that college athletes, as students, do not fit in the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized workers. The school announced plans to appeal to labor authorities in Washington, D.C.

Supporters of the union bid argued that the university ultimately treats football as more important than academics for scholarship players. Ohr sided with the players.

"The record makes clear that the employer's scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school," Ohr wrote. He also noted that among the evidence presented by Northwestern, "no examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend their studies."

The ruling described how the life of a Northwestern football player is far more regimented than that of a typical student, down to requirements about what they can eat and whether they can live off campus or purchase a car. At times, players put 50 or 60 hours a week into football, Ohr added.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said in a statement that while the school respects "the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it."

Huma said scholarship players would vote within 30 days on whether to formally authorize the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, to represent them.

The specific goals of CAPA include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.

Critics have argued that giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize could hurt college sports in numerous ways, including raising the prospect of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments.

For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, such as Northwestern, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities. But Huma said Wednesday's decision is the "first domino to fall" and that teams at schools -- both public and private -- could eventually follow the Wildcats' lead.

Outgoing Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter took a leading role in establishing CAPA. The United Steelworkers union has been footing the legal bills.

Colter, who has entered the NFL draft, said nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on the Wildcats roster backed the union bid, though only he expressed his support publicly.

He said the No. 1 reason to unionize was to ensure injured players have their medical needs met.

"With the sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of," Colter told ESPN.

The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes defray some expenses. Critics say that is not nearly enough, considering players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.

In a written statement, the NCAA said it disagreed 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, not to be paid," the NCAA said.

All of the big NCAA conferences, including the SEC, also disagreed with the decision.

"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," Michael Slive, the SEC commissioner, said in a written statement.

The developments are coming to a head when major college programs are awash in cash generated by new television deals that include separate networks for the big conferences. The NCAA tournament generates an average of $771 million a year in television rights itself, much of which is distributed to member schools.

Attorneys for CAPA argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players' labor to generate billions of dollars in profits. The NLRB ruling noted that from 2003 to 2013 the Northwestern program generated $235 million in revenue -- profits the university says went to subsidize other sports.

During the NLRB's five days of hearings in February, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald took the stand for union opponents, and his testimony sometimes was at odds with Colter's.

Colter told the hearing that players' performance on the field was more important to Northwestern than their in-class performance, saying, "You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics." Asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: "To play football. To perform an athletic service."

But Fitzgerald said he tells players academics come first, saying, "We want them to be the best they can be ... to be a champion in life."

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CriticalReader wrote:
So, do college athletes now have to declare their scholarships on their taxes as income?
on March 26,2014 | 09:53AM
gsc wrote:
I agree... Start Paying Income Taxes on Your Wages.......
on March 26,2014 | 10:44AM
CriticalReader wrote:
According to the article, $75K per year in athletic scholarship. x4 $300K, x5 $375K. Wow! What would back taxes, penalties and interest be to Colter and his teammates from this year's team alone?
on March 26,2014 | 10:58AM
oxtail01 wrote:
Scholarships are not limited to only athletes. Learn what critical thinking is.
on March 26,2014 | 03:33PM
niimi wrote:
And this is why major universities should start to scrap their collegiate athletics programs in their entirety. Flush it all down the toilet along with all the progress with Title IX and other achievements. Just terminate it all. Watch the trickle down effect to the high school level. The cascading will begin. Dominoes fall.
on March 26,2014 | 09:58AM
Bdpapa wrote:
So, now that makes them professional athletes. How is the Union going to help them if they want to compete on the amateur level? This is going to turn everything upside down. Those getting side benefits will now have to list them as income. A whole can of worms is going to be opened. If the greedy big confernces addressed this 10 years ago, this wouldn't happen.
on March 26,2014 | 10:23AM
AhiPoke wrote:
If this proceeds I think we're witnessing the end of college athletics for most schools. The big schools can survive this but most of the mid-sized to smaller schools cannot. Most of these schools already have a hard time with the financial justification of athletic programs. This will push them over the edge. That includes the U. of Hawaii. The net loser will be the people that this is intended to help, college athletes. Tens of thousands of athletic scholarships will be lost, especially hurting those athletes there for an education. Yes, the big schools with profitable programs can deal with this but they are in a very small minority. For those that don't know, the NLRB is a extreme left-wing organization that was set up to encourage and support unionization, so this is not a surprising decision. Recent Obama appointments have made the NLRB even more radical than it had been, and that's saying a lot. I'm not making this up, you can look it up. The problem is the NLRB is not looking at the big piture to see the hurt they will be creating.
on March 26,2014 | 10:45AM
CriticalReader wrote:
Don't blame the NLRB, blame the colleges for creating the system that LOOKS like employment (or rather, indentured servitude) rather than education, and the financially unbalanced system that compelled college athletes to think about seeking union assistance in order to protect themselves. We all have a pretty good idea of what a college sport like football is all about. What the Northwestern kid is claiming seems to make sense. He's opening up a can of worms for college athletes in the process. But, if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, now it's a U Oregon "employee".
on March 26,2014 | 11:05AM
AhiPoke wrote:
First off, I'm not "blaming" anyone. I was just trying to state what led to this decision. You have "blamed" colleges for "indentured servitude". I find that a bit extreme. If it is that bad, why are we seeing signing day events with smiling kids and parents selecting colleges to play for? Yes, a few colleges make extreme amounts of money on athletics but the majority loose money. Would you say students on academic scholarships should also be considered "employees"?
on March 26,2014 | 11:18AM
CriticalReader wrote:
In reverse: 1. No, I think college students should ALL be exempted from employee status for tax purposes (or their income up to amounts spent on tuition and housing). Including those working at Taco Bell to pay for college - in light of the extraordinary expenditure they make that a business person could write off as a "training" business expense, or even employee could get relief over if it's continuing ed or field related. 2. Signing day events with parents and kids smiling? I bet that kid Colton's parents were smiling when he signed. He's not smiling anymore. He's making a federal case, with a cornerstone being the lack of medical coverage for sport related injuries - which I suspect none of those smiling parents or kids are thinking about. 3. Indentured servitude? Why can't you see the connection? Lack of mobility, completely unequal bargaining power, zero economic control over opportunity to realize or realization of revenues generated, move to stem efforts to organize, lack of responsibility by the "employer" for medical care, etc., etc., etc. Baseball used to have the "reserve clause", which amounted to indentured servitude. The college system is way worse. At least MLB players under the reserve clause could go get endorsements.
on March 26,2014 | 02:11PM
kuroiwaj wrote:
Oops, another Obama appointee(s) of the U.S. National Labor Relations Board making decisions to "Change America" forever. Wow, Pres. Obama can keep his promise transforming the United State
on March 26,2014 | 11:01AM
Senior_Researcher wrote:
Totally lame, lazy, biased remark. Ohr started in the NLRB Honolulu office in 1997 and was appointed to a counsel position in the National NLRB office by, uh, G E O R G E B U S H in 2005. Would you like to pull your foot out of your mouth, or have you hopefully choked on it already?!?
on March 26,2014 | 12:13PM
kuroiwaj wrote:
Senior_Researcher, No, not pulling my foot out. Worked with the NLRB in the 2000's, even visited the DC office. You must be aware of the influence and pressure through whomever is the President at the time with his appointees..
on March 26,2014 | 02:47PM
oxtail01 wrote:
Why do I....ts like have to turn everything into a political diatribe?
on March 26,2014 | 03:21PM
808comp wrote:
Dump Athletics if that is the case, and see how many of these athletes can afford to go to college.
on March 26,2014 | 11:03AM
gmejk wrote:
Or, for some, get into college.
on March 26,2014 | 11:50AM
Senior_Researcher wrote:
"We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees," the NCAA said. Of course they do. In their view, "student"-athletes are cheap labor to be exploited and dumped.
on March 26,2014 | 12:08PM
ya_think wrote:
What your seeing is the extreme nanny state at work. I love college sports but have to agree if then let this happen then shut the whole thing down. And I do agree 90% of those who get a sports scholarship will not get into a college other than a community college maybe.
on March 26,2014 | 12:15PM
pab123 wrote:
This was not caused by the student/players. College administrations all over the country have tried to ignore this issue for some time now and have instead focused their efforts on exploiting student athletes in the name of greed. It was only a matter of time before the egg cracked. Let's see where this train is headed and maybe the result will cause schools to focus on education.
on March 26,2014 | 12:37PM
Bdpapa wrote:
Yes, this is the lingering effect!
on March 26,2014 | 01:07PM
AhiPoke wrote:
I think you may be missing the point. While a few elite athletes are probably in a position to capitalize on their fame, the vast majority go unnoticed on the bench and/or in small colleges. This majority are there for the free education (scholarship) that they may not be able to afford otherwise. My fear is what happens to them.
on March 26,2014 | 02:09PM
CriticalReader wrote:
They do what they would have done if the NCAA sports explosion never happened. Let's face it. This is a problem of limited but wild success by a select few. And, expectations of huge, grand athletics programs are a recent phenomenon that the NCAA and marquee colleges managed badly by never considering a way to even the distribution of the largesse of that success. This is just one card of many poorly placed in the house of cards. Consider UH's situation. The sports program has been moving toward making no sense long before talk of athlete unionization occurred. Didn't Ben Jay claim a student stipend would ruin the department? Isn't it on 3 year probation by Apple but still paying out millions in coaches salaries? Isn't it's TV revenue capped at whatever OC16 decides to pay it? Don't the light bulb changing duties, event security, football scheduling and major fundraising vision planning all appear in the same job description?
on March 26,2014 | 02:51PM
AhiPoke wrote:
Have you read any of your wild rants? First can you at least state if you are a union member so it can be determined if you have any bias. I actually think not, as many of your comments indicate a problem with union work rules. Next, explain to me how unionizing college athletes will result in a better situation and what that better situation is. If you read my comments, I'm looking for the situation that's best for most college athletes. BTW, I know several parents of former college athletes who were on scholarship. None, yes none/zero/nil, complained about being taken advantaged of. They are all happy about not having to have paid for tuition, books and living expenses.
on March 26,2014 | 05:50PM
CriticalReader wrote:
Not a union member. Does that help you? No. How does unionizing college athletes help? Well there appear to be problems - namely, limited ability to pursue majors of choice due to the demands of athletic participation and performance standards, lack of long term medical care regarding injuries suffered while playing in games making schools money, and lack of an even playing field (only partial pun intended) regarding ability to realize economic benefit (real economic benefit others are hogging due to clearly unfair rules) from one's efforts. The NCAA is beholden to the institutions and their interests. So, union representation, absent some other paradigm that doesn't appear available, seems to be a good way for there to be organized representation and a controlled negotiation forum for the student athletes. So, you're looking for "what's best for college athletes"?????? I guess that would be the current systems and rule structure? Uh huh. And, talking to the parents of college athletes and the athletes themselves are two different things. Colton's (from the article above) parents???? I'm sure their happy they didn't have to pay for college. But Colton himself is unhappy. Maybe he's upset because he could've gone pre-med, but had to do communications in order to accommodate the needs of his football program AND keep his scholarhsip. Maybe he has a permanent injury he's worried about, or is just worried that CTE will show up without his ever playing another down of football. Maybe he just thinks it's unfair that he couldn't get some dollars beyond his scholarship, room and meal plan when the alumni and administrators were partying in the bahamas during winter. Who knows. But, his efforts don't bother me. What he's asking for seems fair. If it changes the game for college athletics, so be it.
on March 26,2014 | 08:03PM
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