Unionizing college athletics is years away, if ever

Northwestern football players took the first step Tuesday, but a thousand other steps could be needed to enact change.

The push by Northwestern University football players to form a labor union that would dramatically change the landscape of collegiate athletics likely will come down to a key legal question: Are college athletes employees of a university?

The 854,000-member United Steelworkers union, which is paying the legal bills for the athletes’ organizing drive, is betting that the answer is yes. “Our attorneys, [they all] believe, yes, they are employees,” said Tim Waters, the United Steelworkers national political director. But Waters predicted that the legal dispute with the NCAA, the governing body for major collegiate sports, could drag through the courts for years.

On the day after Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and the United Steelworkers held a news conference in Chicago to announce the intent to unionize, the impact was being felt across the country.

Darrell Thompson, the former star Gophers running back, said the move at the very least should prompt some soul-searching. “I’ve often wondered about the revenue that is generated by the major sports in college,” said Thompson, a radio analyst for Gophers football, “and the maybe disconnect between the student-athletes about compensation and [the] NCAA or the administrations.

“We see the escalating salaries of coaches, and you look at something like what [Alabama football coach] Nick Saban’s getting,” Thompson said. “It’s a lot of money.”

Saban signed a contract extension in December that reportedly will pay him around $7 million a year.

Immediately after Tuesday’s news conference, the legal battle lines were being drawn on the latest attempt by college athletes to be compensated monetarily. The NCAA’s chief legal officer, Donald Remy, said the “union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education.” Student-athletes, said Remy, are not employees as defined by the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A University of Minnesota spokesman said that athletic director Norwood Teague was unavailable for comment.

By siding with the college athletes, the United Steelworkers almost surely will change the dynamics of the debate. Legal observers said the union, with its financial muscle, should prove to be a worthy adversary for the NCAA.

Colter, who completed his senior season last fall, expanded on his reasoning in a series of tweets. “At Northwestern, we work tremendously hard to receive our degrees. At the same time, a degree is not going to stop [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] we may have from concussions,” he wrote. “A degree won’t guarantee my medical bills are paid if I need a knee replacement down the line.”

Four-year careers an issue

Bob Stein, an All-America linebacker for the Gophers in the late 1960s, said unionizing college athletes goes too far. “I still think there ought to be a fundamental difference between professional and amateur sports,” said Stein, a Minneapolis attorney.

“If Kain is saying, ‘There are certain issues that ought to be addressed. This system is decades and decades old, and it’s out of date in some areas.’ Then absolutely, yes,” Stein said. “If you say, ‘Should there be a labor leader at each school that can call strikes and that kind of stuff?’ Absolutely not.”

Others see college athletics as a logical area for unions — who are aggressively trying to find new members — to get interested in. After taking its biggest drop in six years in 2012, union membership in the U.S. remained essentially the same last year at 11.3 percent, according to a report by the U.S. Labor Department. For the first time in several years, more workers in the private sector belonged to unions than in the public sector.

“This is an untapped market for unions, and I think that’s a very significant factor,” said Marshall Tanick, a Minneapolis employment and labor lawyer. “It’ll be a hard fight. It’ll go for four quarters.”

The United Steelworkers, Waters said, will not get new members should college athletes form unions because the athletes would belong to a separate union. At Tuesday’s news conference, the players announced the formation of the College Athletes Players Association.

Waters, however, said that the relatively short span of a college athlete’s on-the-field career will be difficult for union organizing. “This is what the NCAA’s counted on for a very long time,” he said. “They know that they’re only going to be there for maybe 48 months.”

Justin Conzemius, a Gophers defensive back in the early 1990s, said it is striking how much bigger the NCAA has become as a business since his playing days. “Now, it’s a multibillion dollar sports organization that looks a lot like the NFL, a lot like the NBA and a lot like MLB — with the one difference being how the people on the field are compensated and treated,” he said.

  • What: Northwestern football players announced this week an attempt to unionize.

    The big-picture question: Can college athletes legally be defined as employees of a university?

    NCAA stance: The governing body of college sports strongly opposes the move.

    Lending support: The United Steelworkers union is backing the move.

    What’s next: The attempt certainly will end up in the courts, likely taking years to resolve.

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