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The Unionization of College Sports

It will be some time before we know just how historic and impactful yesterday’s ruling was by the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

 Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (David Banks/Getty Images)

In what many are calling a landmark decision they ruled that football players at Northwestern University are essentially employees of the school and meet the standards under federal guidelines to form a union.  In the written decision the NLRB said “players receive scholarships to perform football-related services for the employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the employer’s control and are therefore employees.”

The case was originally brought up by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and the newly-formed College Athletes Players Association which was supported by the United Steelworkers union.  As part of its ruling Wednesday the NLRB ordered an immediate election in which current Northwestern players can vote on whether they want to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association.

As you might expect school officials at Northwestern said they would quickly appeal to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C and they will certainly have the backing of the NCAA.  Wednesday’s decision only applies to private institutions like Northwestern and does not apply to public universities although it clearly does set a precedent that could be followed.

Most will assume right away this is about money and certainly that is part of it.  However the original intent of Colter and CAPA was to seek better medical protection for college football players while also setting up trust funds they could tap into for any uncovered education costs and when they finish school.

Of course this latest development could have major implications when it comes to what has been debated for years: should college athletes, who help produce millions of dollars in revenue, be entitled to a piece of that pie.  Clearly there is a need to find a way for them to have walking around money or be able to fly home to visit their family and a myriad of other needs.

However nobody has been able to come up with a plan that is fair and equitable for all involved and it seems we still have a ways to go.  However there is no doubt that what took place yesterday was a victory for college athletes.


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