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Thursday, March 27, 2014
Viewpoints: Northwestern's union push

By Adam Rittenberg

Wednesday could turn out to be a pivotal in the future of college athletics, as a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern players have the right to move forward with their unionization efforts. It was a big win for former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, the College Athletes Players Association and those who believe players deserve more for participating in a sport that generates billions of dollars.

Not surprisingly, media members and others across the country weighed in on the ruling.

Here are some of those viewpoints:

The New York Times' William C. Rhoden: I don’t advocate pay for play. The opportunity to earn a degree from the nation’s finest universities is an unparalleled opportunity. But the N.C.A.A. must loosen its iron-fisted grip on revenue-producing athletes, must give them more rights, more benefits and greater flexibility to sign with agents and explore the possibility of turning pro without losing eligibility.

CBSsports.com's Dennis Dodd: Student-athlete welfare is a front burner issue. And someone -- soon -- is going to have to deal with it. The most obvious someone is the NCAA. They happen to be way behind on this particular issue. Northwestern and the association both issued statements expressing their “disappointment” with the decision. We're kind of way beyond that now.

Esquire's Charles P. PierceThe current system of college athletics is doomed. It is untenable, and now it's under assault from too many directions. There's the O'Bannon case in Los Angeles, and Jeff Kessler's anti-trust suit against the NCAA, and now this. Somebody better seriously start thinking of negotiating the terms of the inevitable surrender.

ESPN.com's Ivan MaiselOhr ruled the football players are not primarily students, citing the time demands of the sport at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Ohr spent four single-spaced pages describing the 12-month workload of the Wildcat football player. It is typical of any FBS school, and it should be a must-read for any parent before he or she signs the grant-in-aid. But the workload of the college athletes in non-revenue sports is also extreme. They also sign that contract to perform services. They are subject to the control of the coaches, and in return for payment. By these criteria, they deserve to join the union, too.

The Nation's Dave Zirin: The NCAA is now in a fight for its life. Their power emanates solely from its position as a cartel. That means all they have the controlling authority to hold every school to the same byzantine ground rules or suffer the consequences. This controlling authority is currently being crippled under the weight of its own greed. This controlling authority has created an unsustainable system of free-market, freewheelin' capitalism for coaches and indentured servitude for players.

SportsIllustrated.com's Andy StaplesIf the people in charge of college sports don't want to see the system they've created come crashing down in a courtroom or a bureaucrat's office or in the halls of Congress, it's time to invite the athletes to the table -- unionized or not -- and hammer out a deal with which everyone can live. If not, their disappointment will only continue.

The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rosenthal: Whether it takes unionization or a lawsuit or some other mechanism, student-athletes need leverage to gain a voice in a number of areas. For instance, there's no reason they can't be assured of the very best available medical care, not just while in school but beyond. They shouldn't have to worry they'll be stripped of their scholarship on a coach's whim. They shouldn't have to surrender the right to profit from their own name and likeness.

The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News' David JonesThe very idea of college sports is not normal. No one else in the world has a system like we do. It’s looked at as wildly strange and nonsensical. People in other countries survey our college sports landscape and say, “Huh? ... Why?” Why would high schools and especially universities take part in promoting and running athletic teams on the side as if they were businesses? How does that fit into any academic mission?

Bloomberg Businessweek's Paul M. Barrett: The notion of student athletes as employees is less far-fetched than it sounds. Historians of college sports have noted that the NCAA decades ago invented the concept of the “student athlete” to protect universities against workmen’s compensation claims by injured former competitors. The NLRB’s ruling should help erode the fiction that membership on a Division I football squad is just another extracurricular activity, akin to student council or the debate club.

The Los Angeles Times' Jon Healey: Even if the ruling survives the next round of review, though, it seems certain to be challenged in court and in Congress. There seems little doubt that classifying student-athletes as school employees and allowing them to organize would be hugely disruptive. Considering that disruption, the NLRB's approach may not be the right response to the issues raised by the Northwestern players who felt, as so many student-athletes do, that a scholarship isn't a fair trade for the demands the school places on them, including the debilitating injuries they may sustain. Yet those issues need to be addressed.

The New York Daily News' Flip Bondy: There is one injustice to the ruling Wednesday by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that allows for the unionization of Northwestern’s football players: It should have happened elsewhere first.