By Ken Reed

The National Labor Relations Board has shot down an effort by Northwestern football players to form the country’s first college athletes’ union.

The ruling annulled a 2014 regional NLRB decision in Chicago that found that scholarship football players are indeed employees under U.S. law and thus entitled to organize.

This week’s NLRB decision is definitely a blow to the college athletes’ rights movement. However, it’s a short-term hit in what is an inevitable march to a system in which college athletes have the same economic and civil rights as the rest of Americans. There will continue to be legal challenges to the archaic NCAA model, and the preponderance of evidence remains on the side of the players.

I see this setback as similar to the one experienced by Curt Flood and Major League Baseball players when Flood lost his U.S. Supreme Court case against MLB’s reserve clause. Despite the decision, Flood’s courageous fight raised awareness and understanding of the issues and enhanced solidarity amongst the players. It was the necessary first step to the ultimate demise of baseball’s reserve clause, which came a few years later.

“It is a bump in the road,” said the United Steelworkers’ Tim Waters of the NLRB decision. The United Steelworkers union helped fund the Northwestern unionization effort.

There have already been a lot of positives from the Northwestern effort. For one, the Northwestern case raised the nation’s awareness of the basic unfairness of a college sports system that allows athletic directors, coaches, TV execs and others to pull in huge salaries, while the players who create the multi-billion dollar product are limited to a free seat in class. In addition, the NCAA is now offering athletes four-year scholarships instead of one-year renewables, full cost-of-attendance scholarships, 24-hour food stations for players, and improved medical coverage.

It’s a long ways from where things need to be but it’s also a big step forward from the players’ situation five years ago.

“We wanted things to turn out differently,” said Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who led the unionization effort.

“But all the positive changes that have been brought from this make it worthwhile. … This really doesn’t take away from the whole movement and the whole act of of having college athletes stand up for their rights and what they believe in. … I can tell you this: The cause of athlete’s rights is not going to stop. We’re still going to advocate for it, still find avenues to put pressure on the system to get changes.”

Colter’s right. This thing is far from over. More positive change on the players behalf is coming. It’s just a matter of time.

Nevertheless, one thing’s for sure: The more college athletes that join the movement with principles similar to Colter’s, the sooner more change will come.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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