O n March 26, a National Labor Relations Board regional director made one of the biggest rulings in college sports history, declaring that Northwestern’s football players were employees of the school and therefore had the right to unionize.
Why was the decision so important? Simple. By giving Northwestern’s student-athletes the right to unionize, it is declaring the idea of the ‘student-athlete’ a fraud, an idea that the NCAA is founded and based upon.
The ruling says, in no uncertain terms, that the players can collectively bargain with Northwestern. And if a unionized team took the field next fall while receiving wages in exchange for playing, every player would be ineligible, thus forcing the NCAA to change its rules on eligibility.
However, for now nothing happens. Northwestern is appealing the decision to the National Labor Relations Board and the team hasn’t voted to unionize yet, casting doubt over whether the team as a whole actually wants to unionize. Even if the team does unionize and Northwestern loses its appeal, the process wouldn’t end there. Rather, it is likely going to federal courts — possibly even the Supreme Court — a while down the road.
But regardless of which way the appeal goes or whether the team actually votes to unionize, the NCAA has been put on notice that college athletics, as we have known it for the last 100-plus years, may be in for quite the shakeup.
So what does this mean for Penn? In the short-term, not much.
Penn doesn’t give out athletic scholarships and works off a true student-athlete model, as has been trumpeted by everyone at the University from Provost Vincent Price to new Athletic Director M. Grace Calhoun. The lack of scholarships is a concept that the Ivy League was founded upon and definitely won’t be changing any time soon.
And without scholarships, there isn’t an employment contract or any formal compensation for Penn’s athletes, making unionization impossible for any of Penn’s varsity sports.
Yet Penn, like the rest of the NCAA, needs to be wary of the change that will invariably be coming to intercollegiate athletics.
Northwestern’s football team isn’t the only challenge to the NCAA. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon is leading a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, the goal of which is to allow athletes to cash in on the use of their likeness and image — something that is prevented by NCAA bylaws.
And while O’Bannon’s suit doesn’t go to trial until June 9, it may be something that the NCAA should fear more than unionization.
Unionization affects private schools that give out scholarships, so schools like Stanford, Duke and of course, Northwestern, are directly implicated by the NLRB’s ruling. And the unionization ruling may only affect revenue sports like football, as one of the key parts of the previous decision was that a sport had to bring money into the institution.
O’Bannon’s lawsuit, on the other hand, affects every single school that is a part of the NCAA. Every single school benefits from the likeness and image of its athletes, using them for promotional efforts and making money through those efforts.
And the lawsuit would have the ability to affect non-revenue sports as well. Across town , Temple recently eliminated seven sports and many schools, including ones in close competition with Penn, which may have to follow suit if the eventual O’Bannon lawsuit has a tangible effect on the money going into athletic programs.
Ultimately, extensive changes to the NCAA, which are necessary based on the current climate of college sports, may not be coming for a while thanks to an extensive system of appeals.
But with the pressure of unionization and O’Bannon’s lawsuit, Penn, the Ivy League and the NCAA as a whole are on notice.
Change is coming and the whole country better be ready.
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