The idea of student-athletes bargaining for their collective rights has created angst in the top ranks of higher education, as it has among leadership in college sports.
“I have some real, real grave concerns about the future of collegiate athletics if we were to permit unions,” said Ohio University president Roderick McDavis, a member of the NCAA Division I Board of Directors.
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Such widespread fear among the guardians of an amateur sports system in place for more than 100 years is why a hot spotlight will shine today on a private university campus in Evanston, Ill. It’s there that 76 Northwestern football players will vote this morning on whether to form the first players’ union in college sports history.
Those Northwestern players were granted the right to unionize when Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of Chicago’s National Labor Relations Board office, ruled on March 26 that they are university employees.
As a private university, Northwestern falls under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, a federal statutory body that recognizes groups seeking collective bargaining rights. Public universities such as Ohio State are governed by state labor laws.
None of the Northwestern football players is required to vote, and it will take a majority to approve unionization for the College Athletes Players Association to begin bargaining on their behalf.
Majority approval isn’t a lock. Northwestern senior quarterback Trevor Siemian recently said he plans to vote against the union. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has told his players not to unionize. Henry Bienen, a former president at the university, has said a union could mean the end of Division I sports at the Big Ten school.
Results of the secret ballot will be impounded until the national NLRB office weighs in on a university appeal of Ohr’s ruling. That could take months. Legal analysts say a final outcome in the union matter could take years if, as many expect, the case ends up in federal court. Some ultimately forecast a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
“There is so much judicial deference to sports in sports-related issues,” said attorney Don Jackson, head of the Sports Group, which has represented college athletes in litigation matters against the NCAA. “Traditionally, the courts have stood back and said, ‘You’re the experts; we’re going to stay out of it.’
“But that case has the potential to move the meter considerably on the issue of players’ rights and players’ benefits. Although I believe the unionization idea will ultimately fail, I hope it doesn’t.”
The push to unionize, led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, has caused powerful forces to choose sides.
The United Steelworkers union is paying CAPA’s legal bills, and the Northwestern players have received public vocal support from the Drake Group, a national organization of faculty members that has long advocated for better academic integrity in college sports. Others have taken the side of protecting the status quo in college athletics.
“It’s a very difficult road to go down for us to start thinking of our student-athletes as employees of the university,” said Wright State president David Hopkins, a member of the Division I Board of Directors. “It certainly would change all of the dynamics.”