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Labor Ruling May Be Tipping Point For College Sports


Proponents of unionizing college athletes are talking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week. Those meetings come after last week's ruling by a National Labor Relations Board official, that football players receiving scholarships from Northwestern University qualify as employees of the school, giving them the right to unionize.

NPR's Tom Goldman looks at whether the ruling could be a tipping point for change in college sports.


TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: With his decision last week, the NLRB regional director in Chicago appeared to unleash an army of football playing Norma Raes, defiantly thrusting union cards in the air the way the movie heroine did in 1979.

But not so fast. The story shifts to Washington, D.C. where the full NLRB will hear an appeal by Northwestern, which is challenging the decision. A challenge that could very well succeed, says Tulane University sports law expert Gabe Feldman.

GABE FELDMAN: There's a decent chance it gets reversed, only because this initial decision is an outlier.

GOLDMAN: It contradicts decades of legal rulings upholding the idea that young people who play college sports are amateur student-athletes. The NLRB regional director ruled the opposite, they are essentially athlete-students, whose huge time commitment to football and compensation in the form of scholarships defines them as employees.

And it's a concept whose time has come, says Ramogi Huma. He's the former college football player and driving force behind the push to unionize.

RAMOGI HUMA: You know, this is something that's not going to be overturned.

GOLDMAN: There's reason to believe that. In addition to the ruling, there are pending lawsuits - one by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon; one filed recently by prominent anti-trust lawyer Jeffrey Kessler - that are pushing for greater compensation for college athletes who generate more and more millions in revenue each year.

Dave Ridpath is president-elect of the college sports reform organization The Drake Group.

DAVE RIDPATH: I tend to think that in three to five years from now, I don't think the collegiate athletic model, that we've been trying to maintain, is going to be anything like we have it today.

GOLDMAN: Law Professor Gabe Feldman envisions two extremes. One, incremental change...

FELDMAN: That allows for great compensation to student athletes not above their cost of attendance, but at least to match their cost of attendance.

GOLDMAN: The other, a total free market system...

FELDMAN: Where the athletes get paid whatever the market tells them.

GOLDMAN: More likely, says Feldman, somewhere in between, like what he calls the Olympic model.

FELDMAN: Where the schools aren't directly paying the student athletes but they're allowed to get paid for the use of their name and likeness. They're allowed to sign endorsement deals.

GOLDMAN: And the games, Feldman and sports reformers say, wouldn't change.



UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Manziel takes off again...


FELDMAN: If Johnny Manziel had received $50,000 this year or $75,000 - either from Texas A&M or from a Nike or Adidas - that would not have changed the product. We would still be rooting for Johnny Manziel or against Johnny Manziel, whether or not he's getting paid.

GOLDMAN: Maybe. There are college sports fans who chafe at the idea of compensation. But that idea, says Ramogi Huma, head of CAPA, the College Athletes Players Association, is pretty far down the road. Right now, the push for a union is to secure basic benefits, such as reliable Medical coverage for college athletes. The NCAA, which is supporting Northwestern's appeal, was not able to provide anyone to comment, citing packed schedules during Final Four week.

Meanwhile, CAPA announced Northwestern football players will vote at the end of this month on whether they want to be represented by a union.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.



(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.

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