Paul Beaty, File, Associated Press
They're battling in courtrooms, and could one day meet over a bargaining table. About the only things the two sides in the debate over big-time college athletics agree on is that things are changing.
Schools bringing in hundreds of millions in bloated television contracts. Coaches making the kind of salaries that late UCLA legend John Wooden wouldn't recognize. Athletes insisting on basic rights, if not outright cash.
And now a union for football players at Northwestern that would previously have been unthinkable in college sports.
A ruling Wednesday that the Northwestern football team can bargain with the school as employees represented by a union may not by itself change the way amateur sports operate. But it figures to put more pressure on the NCAA and the major conferences to give something back to the players to justify the billions of dollars the players bring in — and never see.
There's huge money at stake — nearly $18 billion alone just in television rights for the NCAA basketball tournament and bowl games. Already fighting a flurry of antitrust lawsuits challenging its control of college athletics, the NCAA can't afford too many more defeats.
"This is a colossal victory for student-athletes coming on the heels of their recent victories," said Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust law. "It seems not only the tide of public sentiment but also the tide of legal rulings has finally turned in the direction of college athletes and against the NCAA."
For the NCAA, the timing of a National Labor Relations Board opinion allowing a union at Northwestern couldn't have been worse. In the middle of a tournament that earns schools close to $1 billion a year, it is being taken to task not only for not paying players, but for not ensuring their health and future welfare.
Add in embarrassing revelations like Florida coach Billy Donovan's new $3.7 million-a-year contract and the $18,000 bonus that Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith got for one of the school's wrestlers winning an NCAA title, and it gets harder for some to sympathize with the NCAA's contention that everything it does is for the benefit of athletes who play for the glory of their schools.
"Fifty years ago the NCAA invented the term student-athlete to try and make sure this day never came," said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the designated president of Northwestern's would-be football players' union. "Northwestern players who stood up for their rights took a giant step for justice. It's going to set a precedent for college players across the nation to do the same."
Maybe. Maybe not. The players currently at Northwestern may have graduated by the time the team gets a chance to bargain — if it ever does. The university is appealing the ruling to the full NLRB, and the idea that football players are university employees is one that the NCAA will almost surely continue to fight.
"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid," the NCAA said in a statement.
It was that love of the sport that drew outgoing Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter — as well as a scholarship that university officials value at around a quarter million dollars. But Colter, backed by lawyers with the United Steelworkers union, began the union push after growing disenchanted with the time demands placed on him in football that forced him to drop his plans to go to medical school.
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