CHICAGO (AP/KDKA) – They’re battling in courtrooms, and could one day meet over a bargaining table. About the only things the two sides in the debate over big-time college athletics agree on is that things are changing.
Schools bringing in hundreds of millions in television contracts. Coaches making he kind of salaries that the late UCLA legend John Wooden wouldn’t recognize. Athletes insisting on rights, if not outright cash.
And now a union for football players at Northwestern that would previously have been unthinkable in college sports.
A ruling that the Northwestern football team can bargain with the school as employees represented by a union may not by itself change the way amateur sports operate. But it figures to put more pressure on the NCAA and the major conferences to give something back to the players to justify the billions of dollars the players bring in – and never see.
“While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college,” The NCAA said in a statement.
There’s huge money at stake – nearly $18 billion alone just in television rights for the NCAA basketball tournament and bowl games. Already fighting a flurry of antitrust lawsuits challenging its control of college athletics, the NCAA can’t afford too many more defeats.
“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.”
“I think it opens a plethora of issues,” said Gus Sunseri, a local agent. “Starting with, if it’s compensation that they’re getting in scholarships, then the IRS will look at it, I would assume, as compensation that would be taxed.”
For the NCAA, the timing of a National Labor Relations Board opinion allowing a union at Northwestern couldn’t have been worse. In the middle of a tournament that earns schools close to $1 billion a year, it is being taken to task not only for not paying players, but for not ensuring their health and future welfare.
Add in revelations like Florida coach Billy Donovan’s new $3.7 million-a-year contract and the $18,000 bonus that Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith got for one of the school’s wrestlers winning an NCAA title, and some are frustrated with the NCAA’s contention that everything it does is done for the benefit of athletes who play for the glory of their school.
“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, the designated 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.”
The players currently at Northwestern may have already graduated by the time the team gets a chance to bargain – if it ever does.
The Fan’s Starkey and Mueller brought in Sports Illustrated’s legal analyst Michael McCann to talk about what the immediate ramification’s of these developments could be.
“It’s the first step in the process that could lead to college athletes unionizing,” McCann told us. “It is something that could be reversed later on. It’s the first step in what could end up being a dramatically different world of college sports.”
When it comes to the best route for the NCAA to take, McCann thinks working with the athletes outside of court is probably in their best interest.
“I think the NCAA would be in a better position if it takes ownership of this and comes to a resolution that they can portray as something of a victory. The danger for them in going to court is that a judge is going to decide their fate, and a judge who may not be an expert in college sports could end up determining college sports,” said McCann. “I think that’s a very risky proposition.”