Friday morning, Northwestern football players cast their ballots on whether to form a union, a right granted by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in January. The decision allows players from all 17 private universities that play FBS football the right to unionize.
We won't know how the Wildcats voted, however, perhaps for months. Late Thursday, the NLRB accepted Northwestern University's request to review director Peter Sun Ohr's decision. Until the review is completed—and it may take months—the results of Friday's vote will be sealed and not be made publicly known.
But no matter the outcome of Friday's vote, it's already made an impact on creating more reasonable accommodations for the student athletes who provide most of the labor but receive little monetary redress in what is a billion-dollar industry—college football.
Since the January NLRB decision, a number of developments have taken place on behalf of the players seeking compensation or damages:
|Legal Action Against NCAA|
|Ed O'Bannon anti-trust||Allowed to proceed to trial starting June 9|
|Jeffrey Kessler restraint of trade||Filed in federal court (N.J.) on March 19|
|Shawne Alston cost of attendance*||Filed in federal court (Calif.) on March 5|
|Kendall Gregory-McGhee scholarship cap*||Filed in federal court (Calif.) on April 19|
|*Two cases may be combined|
Forced to react, the NCAA itself is taking steps toward reform. On Thursday, the NCAA board approved a wide-ranging restructuring plan that its members say could lead to scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance, insurance against career-ending injuries, and other small forms of support, such as travel for families and free tickets to athletic events. The top-five conferences also may gain more autonomy and create plans to provide players more compensation.
Make no mistake, the powers-that-be at the NCAA would not have come to the table voluntarily unless its very existence is threatened. This is why NCAA president Mark Emmert went on a recent whirlwind tour defending his organization, though his comments have been widely mocked and derided.
Northwestern did its part trying to persuade the players to vote against forming an union. In a 21-page document dated April 1-6 and leaked to CBSSports, the university laid out the reasons why the players should trust the university to look after their welfare instead of voting for a union that might greatly alter how a college football team is being run.
Several players have said publicly that they'd vote against forming a union, including quarterback Trevor Siemian, whose predecessor Kain Colter led the unionization effort. While there had been considerable lobbying from both sides leading up to Friday's vote, it would not be unusual for the players to vote against unionization, as shown by the UAW's repeatedly failed efforts to unionize auto workers in the sun belt.
If the NLRB review ends in Northwestern's favor, or if the players indeed voted against forming a union, the process would come to an end. If the NLRB sides with the players while they voted to form a union, the university almost certainly will appeal to federal court and tying the case up perhaps for years.
But the mere act of the vote taking place is already historic. It's another move toward gaining more rights for the players and forcing the NCAA to undertake serious reform from within.
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