Northwestern union ruling may mean big change for college sports - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Northwestern union ruling may mean big change for college sports

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Football players at Northwestern University have the right to unionize, an NLRB official ruled. The school has appealed the decision. (source: MGN) Football players at Northwestern University have the right to unionize, an NLRB official ruled. The school has appealed the decision. (source: MGN)
Northwestern QB Kain Colter has been the face of the effort to allow football players to unionize. The athletes said they are seeking better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships and the possibility of being paid. (Source: MGN) Northwestern QB Kain Colter has been the face of the effort to allow football players to unionize. The athletes said they are seeking better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships and the possibility of being paid. (Source: MGN)
Donald Jackson, a sports attorney and law school professor believes the players' case will go to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Source: thesportsgroup.org) Donald Jackson, a sports attorney and law school professor believes the players' case will go to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Source: thesportsgroup.org)

A ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that would allow college football players to unionize probably won't survive legal challenges, but could help pave the way to one day pay athletes at major universities, a sports attorney and law school professor said.

The Chicago board ruled that players at Northwestern University qualify as employees of the school because their scholarships are tied to performance and because of the time commitment that is required. The school has already filed to appeal to the national board in Washington, DC, and major conferences have issued statements in opposition.

Donald Jackson, who an associate professor at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, AL, believes the case will wind up in the nation's highest court.

"The next step, whether the university or the players prevail, will probably be litigated in the federal system and could wind up in the Supreme Court," said Jackson, who is also the principal at The Sports Group, which has been involved in many high profile cases involving the rights of college athletes.

While Jackson thinks the NLRB decision is a step toward reform at the highest levels of college athletics, he does not foresee the players winning outright.

"Given prior case precedent, I'm not sure this effort to unionize will prevail," he said. "But I do believe it will move the needle further in the players' direction toward getting more benefits."

The NCAA and its biggest conferences generate billions of dollars a year. The 10-year TV contract for the College Football Playoff that begins in 2014 is worth $7.3 billion, and the broadcast contract for the NCAA men's basketball tournament is close to $11 billion over 10 years.

The NCAA voiced opposition to the NLRB ruling, but its president Mark Emmert has endorsed an effort to provide a $2,000 a year stipend to athletes to help with their expenses. The NCAA and the five major conferences are currently involved in an antitrust lawsuit involving football and basketball players who say they deserve compensation based on the use of their images in video games and on TV broadcasts.

Jackson said Emmert's stipend proposal wasn't nearly enough.

"It's like painting the nose of pig red and trying to pass it off as Bozo the clown," he said. "But [the Northwestern ruling] is a positive step. Players now have a hammer over the head of athletic departments. The university and the NCAA didn't anticipate this decision. Now that the decision has come down, they have to take a long, hard look and revaluate a whole lot of issues about services to student athletes."

Jackson also predicted the ruling will bring on a clear delineation between what he calls the five super conferences - the SEC, the Big 10, the ACC, the Pac 12, the Big 12 - and everybody else.

Dayton is enjoying a good run in the NCAA basketball tournament his year, he pointed out, but the rest of the Sweet 16 were traditional college powers. Once the College Football Playoff begins, schools from small conferences are going to be shut out, he said.

"Do you really think a school from the [Midwestern Athletic Conference] or the Sun Belt Conference is going to win?" he said. "It's not going to happen."

It will create a divide between revenue and nonrevenue sports as well as establishing clear lines of delineation between the "high majors, the mid majors, the low majors and the no majors."

Some universities in the top five conferences have annual athletic department budgets close to or in excess of $100 million. The football coaches make salaries ranging from around $3 million to the $7 million a year Alabama's Nick Saban draws after a December contract renewal.

The athletic programs serve as catalysts for fundraising that goes beyond selling season tickets or even broadcast rights. They affect direct donations.

"You have to consider the residual benefits of a national championship," Jackson said. "A national championship makes alumni feel better about their university. You see more money raised going to science, to business, to education. You see more people who are willing to sign over the beneficiary rights of their life insurance to dear, old State U.

"Are we really talking about amateur sports anymore?" he said. "You see that kind of income generation and see the players who are the primary sources of that revenue getting nothing out of it. Many of them come from rural or urban backgrounds. They can't afford to go to movie.

"Why shouldn't a player be in position to receive a stipend, some financial assistance? [The ruling] was a recognition that the economic paradigm of college athletics has changed.

"And that's a good thing."

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