Randy Smith: Northwestern Vote Could Change College Athletics

Thursday, March 27, 2014 - by Randy Smith
Randy Smith
Randy Smith

Most people laughed back in February when members of the Northwestern University football team said they were going to unionize. They had little chance of succeeding because of the tremendous stranglehold on student-athletes by the NCAA. Guess what? Northwestern was given the approval this week by the National Labor Relations Board to hold a vote to unionize its players. This is a decision that rocked the college sports world from coast to coast.

Behind the union movement is former quarterback Cain Colter and the United Steel Workers. A ruling this week by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, claims that student-athletes are paid employees of the university. He also said the players were entitled to vote to form a union if they wish. Can they do this you ask? Of course they can. Will they do it? Yes.

Ohr’s ruling is based upon athletes at private schools and state schools are completely different. Those schools are bound by individual state laws regarding unions. So, Tennessee athletes can forget about unions for now. 

Ohr turned in a 24-page document, highlighting the tremendous control that coaches have over their athletes; everything from practices, to study halls to social media involvement. There has been an ongoing movement to pay student-athletes for many years and despite the numerous lawsuits, the NCAA has always been able to suppress that movement. Now, it may become a lot tougher to suppress.

Also in the document is a section regarding the revenue taken in by Northwestern; $235 million over the last ten years, by a program that is nationally known, but hasn’t been nationally ranked on a regular basis in a very long time. There are many other programs with that much revenue or more in a much shorter period of time.

So, what does this mean? Northwestern is planning to appeal the decision, but the chances of the ruling being overturned are slim. With this ruling as well as legislation in Congress, we could be headed toward major changes in college sports. It also means that college athletes could bargain for benefits in much the same way as pro football, basketball, and baseball players do. They can expect to receive health coverage and benefits beyond their playing days, as well as workman’s comp coverage if they receive a serious injury while playing. The Northwestern players say they’re not interested in being paid for their services, but at that particular school their full scholarship is worth more than $50,000 annually.

If the Northwestern football team succeeds, it will pave the way for salaries and benefits in other sports as well, including men’s basketball; but if you pay those student-athletes, you must also honor Title IX laws and pay women’s teams as well.

How will smaller schools like Davidson for instance, be able to fund this proposal? They won’t be able to fund it without serious help from outside. On the negative side, this could mean the end of college football teams at a lot of schools. On a more positive side however, it could also mean the end of the NCAA as we know it. That organization has gotten too rich and too powerful over the past few decades. Believe me, the NCAA has plenty of money to fund this union proposal, though the powers that be will never admit it.

It could take years for this matter to be resolved; maybe even after my lifetime. That’s the way the NCAA works, but maybe Congress can speed things up. (Did I just write that….?) Who am I kidding?

Stay Tuned!  


Randy Smith has been covering sports on radio, television and print for the past 45 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has written two books, and has continued to free-lance as a play-by-play announcer. He is currently teaching Broadcasting at Coahulla Creek High School near Dalton, Ga.

His career has included a 17-year stretch as host of the Kickoff Call In Show on the University of Tennessee’s prestigious Vol Network. He has been a member of the Vol Network staff for thirty years.

He has done play-by-play on ESPN, ESPN II, CSS, and Fox SportSouth, totaling more than 500 games, and served as a well-known sports anchor on Chattanooga Television for more than a quarter-century.

In 2003, he became the first television broadcaster to be inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame. Randy and his wife Shelia reside in Hixson. They have two married children, (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith.) They have three grandchildren, Coleman, Boone and DellaMae.

To contact Randy: rsmithsports@epbfi.com

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