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Synopsis of landmark Northwestern/ union/ NCAA ruling and how it could affect UM

In a decision that could dramatically change the landscape of college sports, especially at private schools including the University of Miami, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that NorthwesternUniversity football players will be recognized as employees.

Unless the ruling is overturned on appeal, it sets a precedent for students at private universities, including UM, to petition to form a union, which would enable them to engage in collective bargaining with their universities.

In his ruling, Chicago NLRB Director Peter Ohr said that he "found that all grant-in-aid scholarship players for [Northwestern’s] football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are ‘employees.’"

As employees, players can bargain for limited contact in practice, guaranteed scholarships and post-career medical benefits, which are some of the union’s CAPA’s stated goals.

Compensation, or "pay-for-play," is not one of the goals for the union.

UM officials declined to comment, but a UM source said the decision was viewed as a bad thing for Miami, should it result in players being able to negotiate for benefits.

But Miami attorney Darren Heitner, a partner at Wolfe Law Miami, said it was too soon to tell whether the decision, if upheld, would impact UM positively or negatively.

“If anything it may be a positive more than a negative at first because potential college players may see this as an opportunity to bargain for benefits that they couldn't at a public university,” Heitner said. “That scenario of paying players is too far off to be concerned about at the current stage.

“If at some point we see this turn into a true pay-for-play debate, and private universities start ponying up the cash, it could put private universities on a pedestal, for those that can pay players above and beyond. UM might not be in the best position among private schools to do that. But it might give them a competitive advantage over FSU and UF.”

Heitner said players might seek more control over equipment, a limit to the number of hours they are required to be involved in football activities and a potential increase in scholarship money. He also said players might request that independent physicians be available to examine players’ head injuries during games.

In a scenario of ultimate chaos, Heitner said “there would be potential for lockouts and strikes. We could potentially see universities locking the players out if they come to an impasse. Perhaps there are replacement players that [could be] used.”

The Northwestern case began to take shape on Jan. 28, when former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter announced current players signed union cards and petitioned to form a union in front of the NLRB.

In late February, a five-day hearing between the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) — the name for the union — and Northwestern was held to debate the issue of an employee-employer relationship between football players on scholarship and the school.

"This was a complete victory," CAPA lawyer John Adam said after the decision was announced.

Colter, a senior last season, who led the union effort for the players, emphasized that players at Northwestern were not mistreated. Instead, they wanted a voice in the process.

"It is important that players have a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect their well-being," Colter said in a statement. "Football and basketball players generate billions of dollars per year. Players will gain a number of important protections once this union is in place."

In a statement from spokesman Al Cubbage, Northwestern expressed disappointment in the ruling, and said it will appeal the decision to the national office in Washington, D.C. The appeal is expected to be heard shortly.

 The NCAA’s chief legal officer, Donald Remy, also said he was "disappointed" in the regional board’s ruling, adding that athletes play "for the love of the sport, not to be paid."

“Over the last three years,’’ Remy’s statement said, “our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. 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 marathon hearing sessions drew considerable attention in Chicago, as Colter testified against his former university. Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald also testified, as did former players and university administrators.

Northwestern argued that education always comes first for its athletes and placed blame on the NCAA system.

CAPA lawyers argued during the hearing scholarships effectively act as compensation for athletes, who are treated as employees due to because of strict rules and special circumstances that which do not apply to normal students. Ohr agreed with these assertions.

UM spokeswoman Margot Winick said the university was "declining comment on this," and it’s unknown if any UM players are planning to form a union.

Desmond Perryman, father of UM football player Denzel Perryman, said he’s skeptical about whether UM players would even form a union, at least initially. He said he has never heard Perryman or other UM players express a desire to be paid, beyond scholarships, or receive other benefits.

“For what all these kids are given, I don't know if it will happen here,” Perryman said. “I know they get compensated by the NCAA paying for their education, but sometimes you feel like this should be a little more because of revenue brought into the school. It can cause a lot of chaos.”

University of Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley declined to comment because he said he didn’t have enough information to form an opinion.  “It's not a 'no comment,'” he said.  “I've simply seen the headline and that's it. I haven't read the story."

Ramogi Huma, president of CAPA and former football player at UCLA, said “this decision clears the way for other FBS football and Division 1 basketball players at private schools within the NCAA to organize.”

Huma worked closely with Colter and the United Steelworkers Union to kick-start the players’ unionization effort.

Heitner said though it’s not mandatory that athletes at private schools form a union, “it is likely that many of them will choose to do so because they can bargain for greater rights.”

Heitner said he doesn’t know if the decision will stand, but if it does, “It would make things very convoluted and potentially blow up the system. [And] pay-for-play might be something these athletes negotiate for, which would run counter with NCAA rules.”

My thanks to former Herald intern Rohan Nadkarni for assisting greatly on this story while I was on assignment at the NFL owners meetings earlier. Please check back later for Heat-Pacers postscripts and Dolphins chatter


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Perhaps, athletes bargaining for lower admission rates at the U, if you catch my drift!!


It's coming. The only question is when.


Posted by: Emilio | 03/26/2014 at 09:38 PM

Don't catch your drift. At all.

robert jay

The NCAA has been asking for this for some time. By intensifying the sports portion effort that goes into being a "student athlete," performance levels are becoming increasingly professional. Practices in the spring, fall, and every day during the season and weight room commitments - which eat deeply into study time - are great for improved results on the field, but lousy for the student part of college. Football, especially, and to a lesser degree basketball, is more a job under big-time programs, than an extra curricular activity.
The way to blunt or turn back this and similar court decisions to come is to emphasize the student part of student-athlete by cutting significantly the time athletes are required to devote to their sports. Granted this will lessen the quality on the field but if all colleges were on the same schedule with the same limits, no college would have a competitive advantage.
Moreover, athletes, especially underclassmen, would be less prepared for an NFL introduction. Hence, colleges would likely retain better players through senior years instead of having those players opt out after a year or two. The NFL and its sportswriter apologists would cry about a decline in the quality of their "minor league" system, but is that really why colleges exist? Robert Jay


Interesting this will only effect private schools. IMO Some may have to shut these programs down.


The less money schools make from football, the more sports they will cut.

Ocala Cane

Better for recruiting. Mom and Dad will want their kid taken care of and would feel better if there were assurances in place that health care will be provided. Might be able to steer some kids to all private universities around the country since benefits will be provided. Just like us looking for jobs, we like to get benefits...

Jim Gallo

They can't cut the non revenue producing women's teams because of Title IX. This is going to destroy College Football as we know it... now these drama queen high school kids that want to play the hat game on NSD will be suing their University (employer) every time coaches scream at them or they get kicked off the team for academics. Bad precedent... just increase their monthly food allowance and give them an housing allowance that is the equivalent for what dorms cost at their university. That way if they want to act like the military kids and rent out a huge house and have a bunch of room mates to pocket the difference then good for them.


How about some practice motes?

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