Training table to bargaining table?
Former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter, who advocates union representation for college athletes, has completed a Hail Mary.
National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung shook up the sports world last week with a stunning decision that concluded college athletes are employees of the institutions where they play.
The decision, which sparked wide comment and debate, will be a surefire conversation starter for a few weeks. Then it will disappear into the ether, which is another way of describing the legal bureaucracy — first the NLRB itself and then the federal courts — where appeals will be pursued ad nauseum.
When a final resolution will be determined and what the consequences will be are impossible to predict.
But there's no doubt that director Sung's ruling has roiled the status quo, giving a significant boost to the common-sense notion that college athletes participating in sports that draw hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue deserve more than they currently receive.
The mind positively reels in the aftermath of a decision that raises far more questions than it answers.
In this specific case, the NLRB has made a very preliminary decision that Northwestern University football players are employees of their academic institution by virtue of the significant time commitment they devote to their jobs. As a result, the NLRB ruled that Northwestern gridders have the legal right to hold an election to determine if they wish to be represented in negotiations with management by a union.
If the ruling is sustained, does it also mean that male and female athletes in non-revenue sports — the programs supported by men's football and men's basketball — also are entitled to union representation? Will the benefits negotiated vary from school to school based on the negotiating prowess of individual team's negotiators. Will Harvard — a private school with an eye-popping endowment — suddenly be able to compete with Alabama based on the benefits it can afford to confer?
The questions range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the answers are elusive. People will just have to wait to see how it plays out.
But one thing's for certain — the times are changing. So it would behoove the NCAA and big-time college sports conferences and institutions to try to get ahead of the curve by revising their Neanderthal approach toward athletic benefits.
If coaches, administrators, academic institutions and television networks can profit from the big business of college athletics, there's no compelling reason the stars of the show — the athletes who make it happen — should not.
It's long been obnoxious to watch college athletes — some of whom come from impoverished backgrounds — get by on little when others higher up the food chain thrive. Academic scholarships, generous though they may be, do not cover the costs of a college education. What's wrong with a generous stipend, more complete health insurance benefits and expanded academic opportunities for those who put their bodies on the line for a school's bank account?
Some may cling to the antiquated notion of amateur athletics. But the rancid realities of some college sports programs should long ago have slayed that myth.
It's not 1920 any more. It wasn't even 1920 when it was 1920 for some institutions determined to find a way to win.
It's certainly not clear that college athletes are employees in the traditional sense of the word. The NLRB's initial finding to the contrary is nothing less than revolutionary and is, at best, on shaky legal ground. But athletes in major college sports deserve a better deal than they're getting now. If the NLRB ruling provides an incentive to reach that goal, it'll be all to the good.