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NLRB ruling still a win for NCAA football players

Northwestern University football players sought to organize.
Northwestern University

The National Labor Relations Board ruled this week that college football players cannot unionize, at least for now. The decision involved players at Northwestern University, a charter member of the Big Ten. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon says the players still made their point.

Last year, in a surprising decision, the National Labor Relations Board granted the Northwestern University football players the right to unionize, if they wanted to. 

This made a big splash, but the ruling was actually very narrow.  The NLRB made it clear its decision applied only to private schools in general – and to Northwestern in particular.  Further, the players still had to vote to unionize, and that was hardly automatic. 

But the players were very shrewd, starting with their leader, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. They wisely did not ask to be paid – which opens a kettle of worms and gets peoples’ backs up pretty quickly. What they did ask for were guaranteed four-year scholarships, unlimited meals, modest stipends so players can afford to fly home on breaks, and health care years later for injuries suffered while playing. In other words, benefits the NCAA, the leagues and the schools should have been providing all along.

Colter also made it clear that Northwestern had been very good to him, from President Schapiro to his former coach, Pat Fitzgerald.  Last spring, the team voted whether to unionize or not. We don’t know the final vote, but everyone I’ve talked with at Northwestern – including several players – believes the team voted against it. Teddy Greenstein, the highly respected Chicago Tribune sports writer who has covered Northwestern for 20 years, gave it an 80-percent chance of being voted down. 

We will never know, however, because after Northwestern appealed the decision, the NLRB voted unanimously this week that it was outside their jurisdiction to make the decision. The board said that because all the other Big Ten members are state schools, allowing players at Northwestern to form a union would not “promote stability in labor relations.”  So, for now, the unionization movement is dead.

In the meantime, the NCAA, faced with a potential planet-killing lawsuit, suddenly started allowing unlimited meals and scholarships on its own.  It’s a bit of a shame that the NCAA needs to fear its own destruction before allowing the most basic of common-sense reforms.  But it’s not surprising.

On the slim chance that the NCAA still wants to do right by the student-athletes, without external pressure to do so, it should stop allowing any school to give one-year scholarships, instead forcing them to guarantee them to graduation. It’s difficult to get a good education in four or five years while working 40 hours a week on your sport – and that’s what all Division I college sports require, no matter what the NCAA claims.

The NCAA should also require schools to provide lifetime health care for injuries suffered in college – same as your employer would. While we’re at it, the NCAA should ban the practice of paying bonuses to head coaches, assistant coaches and athletic directors for milestones the players achieve. 

The unionization effort fell short, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, since it would surely generate lots of unintended consequences – including taxing players for their scholarships and other benefits.

But the players made their point, and to my surprise, it looks like some people at the NCAA were listening. That’s rare – and nothing but good.

John U. Bacon is the other of six books, three of them national bestsellers. His seventh, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” comes out September first.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.