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Dick Harmon: Historic Northwestern union vote a long ways from defining the issue

Published: Friday, April 25 2014 8:08 p.m. MDT

Unidentified Northwestern football players stand outside McGaw Hall and near  a polling place sign where voting is taking place on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Charles Rex Arbogast, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Unidentified Northwestern football players stand outside McGaw Hall and near a polling place sign where voting is taking place on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Charles Rex Arbogast, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Friday's vote by Northwestern football players to decide whether they should unionize is making tons of noise. Many are pontificating on the issue, creating sound bites that pile up on sports talk shows and ESPN’s SportsCenter.

But this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Whether or not Northwestern’s 76 football players voted to form a union really doesn’t matter in the short term. Results of that vote will not be made public for days, weeks, months or years as the university studies the issue. Plus, the current ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that got all this started only affects private schools.

What does matter is that, in the debate over whether college athletes should receive more compensation for their services, another quiver of sharp sticks was just added into what is already a poke in the eye for the NCAA and its member institutions.

Schools are making billions off athletes, who are compensated with scholarships but receive no big share of the pie they help bake.

Northwestern University spokesman Alan K. Cubbage responds to a question after football players voted on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Charles Rex Arbogast, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Northwestern University spokesman Alan K. Cubbage responds to a question after football players voted on the student athlete union question Friday, April 25, 2014, in Evanston, Ill. Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday in an on-campus hall adjacent to their home stadium on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Charles Rex Arbogast, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This issue already has traction.

We saw it a few weeks ago when an NCAA committee recommended limitless food and snacks for athletes. We’ve seen the NCAA flinch and prepare for future lawsuits and dissention with talks about a fifth division and salaries for football players.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The current furor is a long way from finding a solution. Unionizing college players? Most universities, all but about 18, do not make money and run in the red. They pay big coaching salaries, battle the facility arms race and have layers of administration. How can they take on a hundred new employees with benefits and retirement?

And then there’s this:

Northwestern has asked the full NLRB to consider the initial ruling by one of its regional directors that players qualify as employees. If the actual big-daddy NLRB makes a final determination that players do not qualify as employees, the historic vote taken Friday is moot.

This final NLRB ruling is much more significant than the Northwestern player vote on Friday.

While the threat of unionization has brought a lot of frothing at the mouth by many — and that’s a good thing — this isn’t a popular time for unions in this country. Membership is dwindling. An automobile plant in the South just rejected a bid to unionize. If college athletics enters this arena, it will take a path with hundreds of thorny hurdles. What is the unit that will be involved in collective bargaining? Will it be the football team? The basketball team? How about track, golf or baseball? Is a scholarship considered compensation and is it taxable? How does all this relate to Title IX issues with women’s sports? Does it carry over the gender barrier?

Aside from this vote, as I mentioned, this is a new era of college athletics.

The status quo is unpopular.

The NCAA basketball tournament may generate billions for the NCAA and universities who share in the television revenue, and football is headed for a lucrative playoff. But there is a movement afoot to give athletes more, to compensate them for their practices and games. And it seems only fair every time we see a coach sign a contract worth a million bucks or see salary extensions that make coaches the highest-paid public employees in our states.

I remember a year after Jimmer Fredette left BYU, he attended a game in which his image, jersey and highlights were used for marketing on the overhead screen in the area. He asked someone how long that commercial had been running. Of course, the school, not he, was receiving the financial reward.

On the other hand, we can argue another issue. A college athletic scholarship can be worth $60,000 to $100,000 a year. It’s a blessing and a benefit that is worthy and coveted.

You have to look no further than friends and relatives that have taken out federal student loans, shackled themselves for years if not decades into the future to get a degree or advanced degree. I have some close relatives who owe $120,000 now that they’ve graduated, and another that’s been chipping away at $25,000 for years.

Many of our students come from regular families, and it can be grueling to try to pay off anchoring, burdensome debts while raising their own families and buying houses. Considering they're only able to throw a hundred or two at the debts each month, they’d give anything to have played a game and had tuition, books, and room and board paid for during college days.

There is compensation, then there is compensation.

And perspective.

I doubt the majority of Northwestern football players voted to unionize. I think many of them believe they’ve been treated just fine with all their gear, coddling, travel, meals, special treatment and expensive private school scholarships at a university that gave us Moses in the form of Charlton Heston.

We shouldn’t lose sight that our athletes may be taken advantage of when coins in the pot of gold are divided up, but they are not homeless, starving serfs engaged in a modern form of slavery, as some would have us believe.

Indeed, this is a marathon, not a sprint. It's not quite the French Revolution either. The NCAA may act more like Frankenstein than Marie Antoinette, although sometimes we can’t tell the difference.

In the coming days, take with a grain of salt all the blather that will be thrown around. This is an issue that will smolder for a long time.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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