Northwestern union vote just small part of drive for NCAA reforms

Ballot result won't stop push to give student-athletes a larger voice

Northwestern University

Officials from the National Labor Relations Board leave the Northwestern campus after football players voted to determine if athletes want to form a union in Evanston on April 25. (JIM YOUNG / REUTERS / April 25, 2014)

Think of Friday's union vote by Northwestern University football players as the necklace in "Titanic," the ruby slippers or the meaning of Rosebud.

It's what filmmakers, like the late Alfred Hitchcock, would call a MacGuffin — something pursued and fought over and, ultimately, utterly beside the point, subsumed by the larger narrative it helped advance. Like the letters of transit in "Casablanca" or a first-quarter lead in a pro basketball game.

The real story here isn't about whether the Wildcats elect to organize for collective bargaining rights, but the broader effort to compel the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its member schools to allow athletes a greater say in the terms and conditions under which they generate billions of dollars for the college sports industrial complex.

That movement and its momentum continue to grow no matter what the ballots cast in Evanston tell us, and just asking the question already has pushed the NCAA to reconsider much-needed changes it has long refused, claiming always that it acts only in the interests of those it calls student-athletes.

We won't know what the union ballots say for some time. They've been locked up and their verdict will remain unknown until the National Labor Relations Board completes its review of last month's ruling by Peter Sung Ohr, its regional director here in Chicago. Ohr deemed the football players university employees, which is what enabled them to vote on union representation.

With or without a union, however, just being classified as employees could entitle players to workers' compensation benefits, unemployment insurance and perhaps a share in their program's revenue, none of which the NCAA or its schools have been keen on traditionally.

Strike down Ohr's embrace of former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter's argument that the 40 to 60 hours a week he devoted to football made it an occupation, and the real drama continues on various other fronts.

High-profile sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler of Winston & Strawn has a lawsuit alleging price fixing, arguing that it's unlawful to limit an athlete's compensation to the value of a scholarship package.

Former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston has an antitrust suit alleging restraint of trade, accusing the NCAA and major conferences of working in cahoots to keep the value of those scholarship packages below the actual cost of attending school.

Then there's the Ed O'Bannon case, in which the former UCLA basketball star contends the NCAA and schools should cut athletes in on a share of the revenue made from their names, likenesses and images.

All these are seen as greater threats to business-as-usual in big-time college sports than whether Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald has lost hold of his team's purple hearts and minds. Yet the Northwestern situation already has paid dividends to the cause.

On the eve of the Northwestern vote, the NCAA's Division 1 board of directors said Thursday it was close to adopting a new structure that would allow more student-athlete input, along with greater flexibility to serve the student-athlete interests. Sound familiar?

Part of the proposal, which the board said could be approved as soon as August, would be to allow its biggest conferences, including the Big Ten, greater autonomy when it comes to loosening limits on financial aid, and providing insurance, academic support and other benefits that might include travel for families, tickets and incidental expenses, like parking during practices.

The board also said it's discussing long-standing restrictions on transfers and outside employment. Decades of intransigence suggest that doesn't happen without a potential Wildcat strike.

Echoing a common gripe over the years from athletes — and even some coaches — University of Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier complained en route to winning the NCAA's uber-lucrative Division 1 men's basketball tournament that he sometimes went to bed hungry. The three meals a day the school gave him, per NCAA restrictions, sometimes failed to meet the caloric needs his training regimen demanded and, again because of NCAA rules, he didn't have money for more.

This time around, in the shadow of the Northwestern and NLRB situation, the NCAA quickly moved to allow universities to offer athletes unlimited meals and snacks.

So, you know, let them eat cake. Whenever and as much as they want.

It's fair to wonder why, say, a coach or athletic director who makes a seven-figure salary should be eligible for a cash bonus on the basis of something accomplished by an athlete, who's not allowed even a penny extra. But the downside of debating pay-for-play is the predictable hackles it raises.

Those who prefer everything remain exactly the same as whenever they were in school tend to preach the value of a college education (which isn't often disputed, assuming college athletes get that education) and how players should view the game as a passion and not a profession (as if it couldn't be both).

There is, however, more money than ever in college sports. Conferences have their own TV networks. Schools milk the luxury suite market. Athletic programs and coaches cut generous deals with sponsors and suppliers of shoes, equipment and apparel.

At minimum, what's needed is the opportunity to channel some of that cash back to athletes in some way, perhaps funding long-term commitments for top-flight care and support should they suffer disabilities stemming from their playing days. Maybe it's what pays for protections such as requiring all schools to make multiyear scholarship commitments so aid can't be withdrawn on a whim without recourse.

In advance of the O'Bannon case, set to go to trial June 9 in U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif., Judge Claudia Wilken already has deflated the NCAA's longtime argument that sharing revenue with men's basketball and football players might make it impossible to fund nonrevenue sports and women's programs.

Wilken correctly noted there's nothing stopping the NCAA from requiring major conferences and member schools to earmark a greater percentage of shared revenue to fund those programs. It's all about how the money is divvied up.

NCAA President Mark Emmert, whose compensation from the nonprofit NCAA ran almost $1.7 million in 2011, the last year for which the organization's tax return is publicly accessible, has called Northwestern's union effort "grossly inappropriate."

Emmert made the comment while overseeing the NCAA's big moneymaker, the men's Final Four, which culminated in crowning Connecticut's student-athletes champions. What's interesting about this is that, according to the latest NCAA figures, tracking those who entered school between 2003 and 2006, the Connecticut men's basketball program's graduation rate within six years of enrollment was just 8 percent, among the nation's lowest.

So maybe it's not always appropriate to call them student-athletes.

Or maybe, to the NCAA, all the players are named MacGuffin.

philrosenthal@tribune.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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