Here. We. Go.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize.
The decision came just shy of two months since former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter took the podium at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Just two months ago, Colter became the inaugural spokesman for the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Just two months ago, Colter said an "overwhelming majority" of Northwestern Wildcats football players signed cards in support of CAPA.
And in just two months, CAPA, Colter and the United Steelworkers have achieved a drastic victory for NCAA athlete benefits.
Just two months.
It's taking the NCAA nearly 3 years to pass basic athlete benefits like stipends. It took 2 months for Northwestern fball to unionize.
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) March 26, 2014
That is Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel, a Northwestern alum.
The Northwestern unionization saga is far from over. Northwestern's Vice President for University Relations Alan K. Cubbage released a statement that the university is "disappointed" by the ruling and "Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes. Northwestern plans to appeal to labor authorities in Washington D.C."
It gets more interesting. The current National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. includes five members appointed by President Barack Obama, which ESPN's Lester Munson and Tom Farrey note is "more pro-union" than the board appointed by George W. Bush.
According to Fox News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano, two of the members are recess appointees by Obama who may not be able to vote (he says both would vote in favor of unionization).
CAPA and Colter won the first battle. They have the inside leg. The appeals could push the final verdict for an extended period of time. For now, player have the upper hand.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence. Although the general opinion was the Northwestern players would not win, they did. And they did it ridiculously fast.
While Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA drags on and many former and current NCAA athletes toss around the "pay-for-play" argument, Colter and Northwestern did not. The picture continues to get jumbled. Northwestern players are not asking to get paid for their football skills.
They are asking for two changes. First, the players want a seat at the table. They want to have a union. They want to have some sort of say in where the millions of dollars in football revenue is delegated. Second, from this union, they want to gain a form of insurance or trust fund for their post-playing days.
On Sept. 25, four days after he wore a simple "All Players United" wristband against Maine, Colter said:
"There needs to be a guarantee that players aren't stuck with medical bills after they leave with long-lasting injuries that they suffer from football. Essentially, they’re hurt on the job and then they're stuck with the medical bills if they do need a surgery down the line. That's one of the biggest things. With the TV revenue being generated, they could use a portion of that to help out the players in some way. I feel like there needs to be a trust fund generated. I don't feel like there needs to be a direct compensation, but there needs to a trust fund generated somehow that players can access after they graduate. I feel like that would put incentive for graduation rates to rise."
So proud of my teammates, Ramogi, lawyers, and supporters around the nation! This is a HUGE win for ALL college athletes! #APU
— Kain Colter (@KainColter_2) March 26, 2014
At the end of the day, when Colter and CAPA put their arguments against Northwestern's, the debate turned.
The players' issues were laid out. College football players put their bodies and time on the line for their school. Although they get a scholarship, most of their academic studies are challenged by the time commitment to football. Much of this time commitment is "mandatory" and part of the scholarship.
TV, merchandise and other forms of revenue have made the college football industry a money machine. When the NCAA started dishing out scholarships, this concept was not put into the equation.
There are six subsections of the "Statement of Facts" section of the Chicago NLRB decision, signed by regional director Peter Sung Ohr. After "Background," the next five subsections are: "The Employer's Football staff and Grant-in-Aid Scholarship Players, "The Employer's Football Players are Subject to Different Rules," "Football Players' Time Commitment to the Sport," "The Recruitment and Academic Life of the Employer's Grant-in-Aid Scholarship Players" and "The Revenues and Expenses Generated by the Employer's Football Program."
That gives those who have not been in the courtroom an idea of what the board saw as important issue. This is especially true for the "Football Players' Time Commitment to the Sport" section, the longest in "The Statement of Facts."
One interesting portion of this section includes an entire breakdown of one particular game weekend. The game in question is a 2012 game at Michigan. Northwestern lost in heartbreaking fashion, 38-31 in overtime. The decision maps out the entire weekend, which started in the early morning that Friday, and ended with a Sunday commitment:
"About half of the games require the players to travel to another university, either by bus or airplane. In the case of an away game against the University of Michigan football team on November 9, 2012, the majority of players were required to report to the N Club by 8:20 a.m. for breakfast. At 8:45 a.m., the offensive and defensive coaches directed a walk-thru for their respective squads.
The team then boarded their buses at 10:00 a.m. and traveled about five hours to Ann Arbor, Michigan. At 4:30 p.m. (EST), after arriving at Michigan's campus, the players did a stadium walk-thru and then had position meetings from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. The coaches thereafter had the team follow a similar schedule as the home games with a team dinner, optional chapel, and a team movie. The players were once again expected to be in bed by 10:30 p.m.
On Saturday, the day of the Michigan game, the players received a wake-up call at 7:30 a.m. and were required to meet for breakfast in a coat and tie by no later than 8:05 a.m. The team then had 20 minutes of meetings before boarding a bus and departing for the stadium at 8:45 a.m. Upon arriving at the stadium, the players changed into their workout clothes and stretched for a period of time.
They afterwards headed to the training room to get taped up, receive any medical treatment, and put on their football gear. About 65 minutes before kickoff, the players took the field and did additional stretches and otherwise warmed-up for the game. At noon, the game kicked off and Head Coach Fitzgerald, in consultation with his assistant coaches, was responsible for determining the starting lineup and which substitutions would be made during the course of the game. While most games normally last about three hours, this one lasted about four hours since it went into overtime. Following the game, the coaches met with the players, and some of those individuals were made available to the media for post-game interviews by the Employer's athletic department staff. Other players had to receive medical treatment and eventually everyone on the roster changed back into their travel clothes before getting on the bus for the five hour drive back to the Evanston campus. At around 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., the players arrived at the campus.
Although no mandatory practices are scheduled on Sunday following that week's football game, the players are required to report to the team's athletic trainers for a mandatory injury check. Those players who sustained injuries in the game will receive medical treatment at the football facility."
Whether people agree or not, the NLRB in the third-largest city in the country says issues like this warrant the right to unionization. People are not going to be happy, but a precedent has been set. Players do not just get a scholarship and call it a day anymore. Their right to have a voice is coming.
The floodgates are open. Northwestern just won in its region. The local precedent has been set. Who is to say that other schools will not do the same?
The rest of the NCAA world has awaited the Northwestern verdict. Most players likely expected the discussion to table for a longer period of time, but it did not. The first chapter is over, the decision came quickly, and the evidence was strong.
Now NCAA players know they can win. On Wednesday, every NCAA private school football player's eyes lit up. If they feared fighting a losing battle, they have no excuse. In the fight for unionization, the scoreboard reads: Players 1, Universities 0.
The players are undefeated.
The NCAA world may be on the eve of a domino effect. The door is open for more players to join in with confidence. If every player starts his (or her) argument with the Northwestern angle, he or she starts with the upperhand. Plus, the more NCAA athletes that push the issue, the more likely their voices will drive change in NCAA sports.
If the NLRB in Washington, the dominos will fall ever faster. And if this case makes it to the Supreme Court, and SCOTUS votes pro-unionization, the floodgates may burst.
Many people have made the argument Northwestern is a bad place to start the unionization conversation. The players are academically-driven and the coaching staff is not overbearing. This makes it a bad template for the problems in college sports.
This is true. However, Northwestern is also the strongest base to start college football unionization. Northwestern's 996 football APR is No. 1 in the nation. Northwestern football players leave practice before media availability to get to class on time. If these players, can unionize, imagine how helpless other universities will be in the courtroom. Northwestern University should have a better defense than almost any NCAA program, yet it lost.
No matter what happens, Northwestern is still going to continue its spring practices and Coach Pat Fitzgerald will lead the Wildcats on the gridiron come fall. Fans will flock to Ryan Field in Evanston and subject to the players' on-the-field execution, Northwestern will compete for a Big Ten title.
Fitzgerald, who had to testify in the case, tweeted this back on Jan. 28:
Kain and our student-athletes have followed their beliefs with great passion and courage. I'm incredibly proud of our young men! GO CATS!
— Pat Fitzgerald (@coachfitz51) January 28, 2014
Fitzgerald, in his Feb. 21 testimony, said college football is not a job and he insisted students can major in whatever subject they choose, despite their football commitment. Northwestern players made a statement the day of the hearing asserting their respect for the school and football program.
Colter reiterated that today:
— Kain Colter (@KainColter_2) March 26, 2014
Of course the university is ticked they will have to pay for more lawyers to go to Washington. Right now, Northwestern is legally getting torn to pieces for a "wrongdoing" it does do as poorly as most (if not all) other NCAA football programs.
But it will not be long before unionization is not just viewed as a Players vs. Northwestern issue.
The floodgates are open and they tide has only led to success thus far. Players have dipped their feet in. Now, the water is safe to swim in.
As for the argument of schools cutting football at the initiation of unionization or pay-for-play, NCAA football is an all-or-nothing industry. With the floodgates open, if unionization is upheld, everyone is joining in.
Then the NCAA will have no option. Then the players will have a seat at the table in one of the country's most popular sports.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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