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Posted 4/01/14 (Tue)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

At a time when the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and many college athletic programs are rolling in the cash thanks to lucrative television and radio broadcasting contracts and coaches are negotiating for multi-million dollar contracts, it is no wonder that some of the “student athletes” who are helping drive this billion dollar industry have decided that they deserve a bigger slice of that revenue stream.
For these college athletes, what better way to have their financial needs taken care of than by joining a union.
Which is exactly what several Northwestern University football players, who are on athletic scholarships, have asked for. And a ruling last week by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, which said that the football players at this private Evanston, Ill. university should have the right to vote to unionize.
The ruling, which would apply only to private schools, said football players sign contracts that define benefits, dictate their schedules and subject them to arbitrary dismissal for all manner of reasons. And as a result, they are considered university employees and therefore, they can vote to be represented by a union.
Among the issues that the football players, who are pushing for union representation, want are extended medical coverage for former players with sports-related injuries, to have the university pay more attention to concussions, and more financial aid that will allow for former athletes to finish college.
Those are definitely legitimate concerns. And those issues should not only be concerns of the players, but also of the coaches, the university which they attend and the NCAA.
There is no doubt that playing college sports, especially at the higher level D1 schools, is serious work. The programs, whether they are football, basketball or hockey, are designed to be among the best in the nation. And as such, the coaches recruit the best athletes that they can to fill their rosters and offer them the best athletic scholarships that they can.
But being recruited to a high level D1 program is a two-way street for the athlete. The athletes who are recruited into these programs know what is expected of them, both on and off the field. But they also know that, in addition to having their college expenses paid for, if they have a successful and injury-free college career, there is a chance that they could find their way into professional sports.
This legal challenge to allow unions in college sports is going to open a whole raft of issues before it is settled in the court system. If the courts ultimately decide that athletes playing football for Northwestern University can unionize, how long will it take before athletes in other private colleges to follow suit? And then how long will it take before the same challenge is presented in public colleges and universities across the country?
The ball is definitely now in the NCAA’s court as to how it will handle a situation of its own making. The NCAA and its member colleges and universities have built a huge money-making machine on the backs of these so-called student-athletes, where the emphasis has been more on the “athlete” and less on the “student.”
And now, after years of controlling all of the shots in college sports, how the NCAA chooses to deal with possible union representation of college athletes could be a real game-changer.