Roy Exum: Northwestern Players Vote

Friday, April 25, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The National Labor Relations Board, 0-1 this week after the United Auto Workers cancelled a hearing one hour before it was to begin in Chattanooga, has another chance for a last-minute finish today. In what will be under a more harsh light, the Northwestern University football team is expected to vote on whether to become a union Friday morning.

Yesterday afternoon there remained a chance the NLRB may opt to hear an appeal that was filed earlier this month by the university that would either postpone or nullify a February decision by Peter Sung Ohr, a regional director of the NLRB. In February Ohr shockingly ruled that Northwestern's football players on athletic scholarships are university employees, setting the stage for today’s election at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

The university quickly countered, and has ever since maintained that the regional director “mischaracterized, slanted and ignored relevant facts,” mainly in the form that the university’s primary commitment is to educate student, which happens to include scholarship athletes.

The union counter-filed what in NLRB lingo is called “A Request for Review,” stating Ohr’s ruling was “meticulously and carefully reasoned,” that the university’s claims were wrong and that some accusations should be discounted due to NLRB rules. But as of Thursday afternoon, it appeared there would be a vote at the privately-owned university today and insiders are predicting the Wildcats squad will vote “no,” although no media will be allowed to watch the proceedings due to the university’s “private” ownership.

If the NLRB does make a last-minute decision to hear the appeal before today’s vote, the vote could still be taken but the results would be held until after the eventual hearing, which could take months. Such a delay would further clutter the college athletic landscape and already there is more happening than the common eye can see, this due to the billions of dollars that are now involved in NCAA sports.

The biggest reason the vote is expected to flounder is because the subject has exploded, growing much larger than approximately 75 boys between 18 and 20 years old would have ever dreamed. Every college and its fan base across the country is intently watching and many experts are predicting if the Wildcats do align with the Steelworkers union, intercollegiate athletics as we know it will never be the same.

Secondly, the team’s head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, has mounted an all-out crusade against the idea. In an email to his players, he wrote to the players, “Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind.”

And then there are the now-shaken players. Trevor Siemian, a quarterback, says he has changed his mind since signing a union card in January, admitting to the New York Times he should have studied the issue more fully. "This all began with the best of intentions,” he said., while running back Vendric Mark told CNN he would vote against it. “I just hope the NCAA does understand some things do need to change," he said, "but we do not need a third party to come in between us and the coaches."

Everybody realizes that “change” within the NCAA is inevitable. Just last week an absurd rule limiting meals for athletes was struck away and a very real threat the nation’s five biggest conferences might break away and form their own athletic body is forcing the NCAA into granting more authority to the big, rich, and powerful.

Members of the five power conferences -- Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific 12 – are demanding more options in the way they handle scholarship athletes and “a cost of living” format could replace “tuition only” quicker than you may think.

Other changes will occur. In just over a month former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon will present a lawsuit against the NCAA that is quite serious. O'Bannon is suing on behalf of current football and men's basketball players to remove a compensation cap that prohibits them from sharing in the millions that the NCAA makes off of their likenesses. (Think Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel and the thousands of jerseys that have been sold bearing his name and number.)

Many lawyers believe O’Bannon will win. Manziel, who cut his A&M career short just this spring, has reportedly already signed a $100 million contract with sports apparel giant Nike so there is no question certain college athletes are marketable. The University of Alabama just signed a 10-year contract with Learfield Sports that will pay the Crimson Tide $160 million over the next 10 years for “multimedia rights.” Is All-American quarterback A.J. McCarron, who led the team to two national titles, a reason for that?

But then listen to Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who is paid $4.2 million a year to coach in the same Big Ten where Northwestern is a member: “Students should get more than what they get," Meyer told the university’s student newspaper, “The Lantern.”

"But it gets so complicated,” Urban admitted. “To say they should go out and get their own shoe contracts and things ... I start hearing that and I'm like, 'Whoa. What could that do for this great sport? And really, what would that do for college athletics as a whole?’”

It’s beginning to look like we are about to find out. And it could be sooner than you think.

royexum@aol.com



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