U.S. college, athletes wanting to unionize face long battle

Fri Mar 28, 2014 3:52pm EDT
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By Amanda Becker

(Reuters) - Northwestern University football players who tentatively won the right to unionize are digging in for a lengthy legal and political battle with the Illinois school that could reshape the multimillion-dollar sports business U.S. colleges have built around unpaid amateur players.

As politicians and college sports officials warn that the athletes' push to be paid as university employees - rather than be compensated through scholarships alone - could lead to calamity at many schools, the issue has begun to shift to Washington.

That is where the five-member National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will consider Northwestern's bid to reverse a regional NLRB director's ruling on Wednesday in favor of the players. The regional director, Peter Sung Ohr, rejected Northwestern's contention that its football players are amateur athletes, and granted the players the right to unionize as school employees.

A date for the Washington appeals hearing has not been set. In the meantime, Northwestern has vowed to explore "all of its legal options" to reverse Ohr's ruling. "Our student-athletes are not employees, but students," said Alan Cubbage, spokesman for the private university north of Chicago on Lake Michigan.

Ohr's decision "overlooked or completely ignored" much of the evidence presented by Northwestern that the athletes are not employees and "applied incorrect legal standards," Cubbage said in a statement on Friday. Northwestern will file its appeal with the five-member board by April 9, he said.

In Washington, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, a former president of the University of Tennessee, expressed a similar sentiment. "This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it," Alexander said.

There has been a growing national debate about whether to pay U.S. college athletes, particularly at big-time football programs such as Northwestern. Teams typically earn millions of dollars each season through television contracts, ticket sales and merchandising.

For years, athletes have complained about receiving no compensation beyond their scholarships at a time when the business of major college sports has boomed, with hundreds of millions of dollars in television contracts leading the way.   Continued...