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College Sports Unions: 'Careful What You Wish For'

If the NLRB ruling stands, it opens up a host of complex issues that would have to be worked out with college sports programs.
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If Wednesday's ruling by the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ─ declaring Northwestern University football players to be workers and able to form a union ─ survives every legal challenge, would it be the nirvana players hoped for?

Not necessarily, according to law professor Gerald Berendt of The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

"This falls into the category of be careful what you wish for," explained Berendt, who is a former attorney with the NLRB in Washington.

"There are so many issues surrounding unions and collective bargaining agreements that it would take hours to discuss," he said. "And they are not easy to settle."

"Suppose a player gets suspended from the team because of failing grades. Will he have the ability to file a grievance against a professor who's failing him?"

Berendt cited one possible scenario that would need to be agreed upon between a school and a players' union when it comes to bargaining workers' rights.

"Suppose a player gets suspended from the team because of failing grades. Will he have the ability to file a grievance against a professor who's failing him?" Berendt asked. "That's just one of the issues that will have to be worked out."

Along those similar lines, can a player be cut from a team because of a possible criminal offense?

"That player might say, ‘You can't fire me from the team’ and have a grievance because he's an employee of the school," said Berendt. "We see those type of actions in regular jobs every day."

Another major problem in all the union talk is the money, said Dave Hollander, a sports business professor at New York University.

"Determining how much is paid to players and what's fair has to be worked out," he said.

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That could set off an even bigger bidding war for high school players, said John Lomax, a partner at the law firm Snell & Wilmer based in Phoenix. It would pit the nonunion teams against the union schools who could offer more to players, Lomax said.

"You could have a private school like a unionized Northwestern and the public University of Michigan without one. Northwestern might have the better players because they're paying their athletes and offering health care and other benefits," he said. (The NLRB's current ruling only applies to private colleges and football players.)

The idea to unionize might also trickle down the sports food chain, said Lomax.

"Can the college tennis team try and form a union? What would prevent other scholarship athletes from saying they want bargaining rights?" he asked.

Even nonscholarship athletes might want to be treated as workers.

"They could claim they do as much work as scholarship players even though they are voluntarily participating," contended Lomax.

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Choosing a union rep, setting up a bargaining board and negotiating with the university are just some of the time-demanding duties in setting up a players' union, say analysts.

Add to it the possibility of having the Internal Revenue Service determine that scholarships are pay and can be taxed, which they are not now, and players have a lot to think about.

There's also the thought among analysts that some colleges would just cancel their athletic programs rather than deal with unions and salary issues.

"I have sympathy for the players when it comes to them being taken advantage of monetarily," said John Marshall Law School's Berendt.

"At the same time, I still hope that being a student-athlete remains an educational experience. They will certainly have to learn a lot to form a union," he said.