NCAA’s Paid Athlete Problem Isn’t Fading Away

While the collegiate athletic association won a big battle this week after Northwestern University football players were denied a bid to unionize, advocates on the other side of the issue say they're gearing up for a long-term fight.

It was the first big victory in a while for the NCAA on this particular issue. But could it be the last?

On Monday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) voted to deny a petition to unionize from Northwestern University football players. The vote, which had been closely watched by many in the sports world, had the potential to upend the amateur status of college sports—a status that has resulted in protests and likeness lawsuits over the past few years.

A regional director of the NLRB previously sided with the players.

NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy said the association supported the ruling.

“This ruling allows us to continue to make progress for the college athlete without risking the instability to college sports that the NLRB recognized might occur under the labor petition,” Remy said in a statement.

More Battles to Come

But even with the denial by the labor board, advocates for changing the amateur status of student athletes say that it’s not game over quite yet. For one thing, the labor board says they will likely consider the student-athlete issue in the future.

“We’re definitely going to test the waters and see what schools are out there, what players are willing to stand up,” former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, a leading voice in the unionization fight, told Reuters.

Colter has been working closely with the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) on this issue ever since he first announced his intentions to unionize the football team.

A Player in the Middle

The fight was actually spearheaded by Colter, who—inspired by classes he took that discussed the value of unions—reached out to former UCLA star player Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association and a key advocate for amateur players’ rights. Huma and Colter worked together to set up CAPA.

“Here was the quarterback from Northwestern, captain of the team,” Huma told Deadspin of an email he received that set the stage for the fight. “He basically said he wanted to take this thing to the next level. I could read the excitement and the passion just in the email.”

The battle had considerable personal costs for Colter—hearings about the issue seriously damaged his relationship with the university, and an ankle injury that came up during the hearings hurt his draft prospects (he has not been drafted by an NFL team).

“I lost my alma mater,” Colter told Deadspin. “I feel like I’m in exile. I still have my teammates and friends, but the coaches, administrators, none of them. That’s the hardest part, because I sacrificed so much. I loved my four years there.”

An Antitrust Suit Gears Up

The battle may have been unsuccessful for Colter and other player advocates, but it could set the stage for a longer-term fight that they stand a better chance of winning.

That fight comes in the form of an antitrust lawsuit filed by sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler last year.

“The main objective is to strike down permanently the restrictions that prevent athletes in Division I basketball and the top tier of college football from being fairly compensated for the billions of dollars in revenues that they help generate,” Kessler told ESPN of the lawsuit last year.

Sonny Vaccaro, a legendary sports marketer and noted critic of the NCAA’s current structure, encouraged Huma and Colter to remain active in the battle by offering support to the Kessler’s lawsuit, along with a separate likeness suit brought by former NCAA star Ed O’Bannon.

“Ramogi and Kain have helped the cause with the union,” Vaccaro told The New York Times. “And I hope they can continue to throw their weight behind the lawsuits, because that’s where the fight continues.”

Former Northwestern player Kain Colter, center, at the launch of the College Athletes Players Association last year. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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