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National Labor Relations Board rules that Northwestern football team can unionize

03.27.14 at 10:34 am ET
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College athletics are changing, and, after the most recent battle, one university’€™s team has received a green light to create a union.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled on Wednesday that a union can represent the Northwestern University football team, and the athletes can bargain with the school as employees. Although the decision will not immediately impact the way college athletics operate, it will continue the recent surge of pressure on the NCAA to compensate its athletes in some way.

“This is a colossal victory for student-athletes coming on the heels of their recent victories,” said Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust law. “It seems not only the tide of public sentiment, but also the tide of legal rulings has finally turned in the direction of college athletes and against the NCAA.”

The decision comes at an inopportune time for the NCAA after recent revelations that one coach — Florida’€™s Billy Donovan — received a $3.7 million-a-year contract, and that Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith received an $18,000 bonus when one of the school’€™s wrestlers won an NCAA title. It also comes in the middle of the NCAA‘€™s basketball tournament that brings in close to $1 billion each year.

“Fifty years ago the NCAA invented the term student-athlete to try and make sure this day never came,” said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, who has been designated as the president of Northwestern’€™s would-be football players€™ union. “Northwestern players who stood up for their rights took a giant step for justice. It’€™s going to set a precedent for college players across the nation to do the same.”

Northwestern is appealing the NLRB’€™s decision and the NCAA likely will continue to fight the idea of student-athletes as university employees.

“We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not be paid,” the NCAA said in a statement.

Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter made the initial push for a union after he had to drop his plan to attend medical school because of the demands put on him by the football team. Colter, who was supported by lawyers from the United Steelworkers union, received a scholarship valued at roughly $250,000 over four years.

Colter also had concerns about the long-term health risks of playing football, and multiple players have requested more research into concussions and other traumatic injuries, as well as insurance so that they will be covered later in life for injuries sustained while playing in college. Some players have also requested that the schools provide money for athletes to continue their education and guarantee four-year scholarships instead of offering year-to-year deals.

“If we are making sacrifices like we are, we should have these basic protections taken care of,” Colter told ESPN. “With the sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of.”

During the NLRB ruling, the life of a Northwestern football player was described as being far more regimented than that of a typical student with the players putting in 50-60 hours a week and having requirements in terms of what they can eat, where they can live and if they can purchase a car.

NCAA President Mark Emmert had, at one point, suggested a $2,000 extra annual stipend for players, but his proposal failed due to objections from smaller schools in the league.

Alone, the ruling is essentially an irritant to the NCAA and private universities, but if it is combined with antitrust lawsuits, it could alter the way these teams operate. One such suit — that of former UCLA basketball star Ed O’€™Bannon — is scheduled to begin in court on June 9. O’€™Bannon led UCLA to a national championship in 1995 and is suing after his likeness was used in a NCAA-licensed video game without his permission.

“It’€™s never been about monetary gain,” O’€™Bannon said. “It’€™s all about changing the rules and making sure the players, both present and former, are represented as well.”

Read More: Kain Colter, Northwestern University football,