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Does union ruling signal watershed moment for college athletics?

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Greg Peck
March 27, 2014

Here we are, in the middle of March Madness, awaiting the Badger men's basketball team's Sweet 16 match-up against a strong Baylor squad tonight, and a decision Wednesday by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board threatens to upset the entire college sports industry.

Peter Sung Ohr said in a 24-page decision that Northwestern University football players “fall squarely” within the broad definition of employee and thus have the right to unionize.

Unions have been battered by dwindling membership and legislative losses in recent years, so it's no surprise advocates cheered this ruling.

College sports rake in billions of dollars annually, while scholarship players get their educations free but otherwise aren't paid. Supporters for the union bid reasoned Northwestern treats football as more important than academics for scholarship athletes. Ohr agreed with that argument. He pointed out that a football player's life is much more regimented and controlled than that of the average student and can involve focusing on football for 50 or even 60 hours per week.

If you don't think this could have major repercussions on schools across the nation, consider the answer Badger football coach Gary Andersen offered to the first question he got from the audience during Wednesday night's Forward Janesville banquet.

Andersen noted his degree in political science, and with that education, “I learned to keep my mouth shut.”

Later asked whether he thought college athletes deserved stipends, he again mentioned his poli sci degree and added that it's an interesting topic, “But I don't think the system is broken.”

Whether Wednesday's ruling signals a break in the foundation of how schools fund college sports remains to be seen. Northwestern University officials say they will appeal to Washington, D.C., labor authorities. Stay tuned.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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