With all due respect to the glories of the Sweet Sixteen, the center of the college sports universe for the next couple of days is a government office on the ninth floor of a landmark building downtown in Chicago. In that office, the regional director of the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Sung Ohr, will decide whether scholarship football players at Northwestern University qualify as employees who can form a union and bargain for benefits. Ohr told "Outside the Lines" on Tuesday that he expects to adhere to his plan to release his ruling within the 30-day window after the close of the hearing that his office conducted on the issue last month. The hearing closed on Feb. 25, which would place the end of his window at Thursday. Ohr's decision is the next step in a process that, when coupled with litigation against the NCAA and legislation making its way through Congress, could produce radical changes in college sports. The decision could signal the beginning of the end of the NCAA's concept of the "student-athlete" and recognize the enormous commercial enterprises that football and men's basketball have become, forcing schools to share more of their bounty with players in the form of medical and perhaps financial benefits. Here are the possibilities that Ohr is considering as he reviews testimony and documents offered in seven days of hearing in February: • The players are student-athletes whose prime mission is academic. This would be a victory for Northwestern and the NCAA and force Kain Colter, the leader of the NU players as spokesman for the College Athletes Players Association, to appeal to the national labor board in Washington. "NCAA sports is professional," Ramogi Huma, president of CAPA, said in an ABC News interview last week. "The players are paid to play. They receive at Northwestern a scholarship that's worth over $60,000 per year, in return and on the condition that they play football. That's an employee/employer relationship. • The players are employee-athletes who are eligible to hold an election on whether to form a union. This would be a victory for the players and for players at the dozens of private universities who play Division I sports. It would force Northwestern to appeal and could cause some colleges to reconsider their commitments to football and men's basketball, though consumer demand will likely ensure that games fans have come to love will continue on, no matter the underlying economics. • The players are temporary employees. This would also be a victory for Northwestern and the NCAA, and force the players to appeal. The attorneys for Northwestern have asserted the "temporary" nature of players employment as a fallback position during the hearing and in the briefs. It seems implausible when an NFL football career averages less than four years and a college career can extend to five years, but it is a possibility for Ohr's decision. As he ponders his decision, Ohr can rely on testimony from Colter that described the demanding life of a Northwestern football player as a "full-time job" as well as the testimony of head coach Pat Fitzgerald who described his program as the "best player development program in the country," a well-rounded system that allows his players "to be the best that they can be." In addition to the testimony from Colter, Fitzgerald, and several Northwestern compliance, admissions, and student welfare officials, Ohr will look to previous decisions in similar cases for guidance. But, as he searches the legal precedents, Ohr is undoubtedly discovering that the previous cases offer support for both sides. The most important legal precedent is the attempt of graduate assistant instructors at Brown University to form a union. The NLRB ruled that the instructors were primarily students and could not form a union, but the situation of the Northwestern football players and the grad students are clearly different in three ways. First, the graduate instructors were teaching and researching in the academic subject in which they sought a masters or a Ph.D. There is no similar connection between the responsibilities of a football player and his work in his academic major. Colter testified, for example, that his duties as a player interfered with his selection of academic courses.
NLRB's N'western ruling to be issued
ESPN | Mar 26