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'Student-athlete' myth may finally unravel with Northwestern football ruling

The inability to form a labor union might sound like an antiquated problem from the early 20th century, but from college athletes to those working for our country’s largest employer, it remains a vital issue. Walmart employees, however, look richly compensated next to many college athletes, who are callously exploited at the hands of some of our nation’s largest universities. Thankfully, a ruling handed down by the National Labor Relations Board yesterday may be the first step toward dismantling the disgraceful and self-serving myth of the so-called “student-athlete.”

Former Northwestern QB Kain Colter speaks at an event announcing the creation of a labor board for college athletes.
David Banks/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the NLRB ruled in favor of a group of Northwestern football players who want to unionize. According to, this gives the players a green-light “to form the first labor union in the history of college sports.”

This is a huge deal. Although the ruling only applies to players attending private schools, it gives them the opportunity to form organizations that can negotiate the types of labor agreements many other professions enjoy. And in stating that Northwestern players "fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act's broad definition of 'employee' when one considers the common law definition of 'employee,’" NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr was unequivocal in his decision.

“Clearly, the Employer’s players perform valuable services for their Employer,” Ohr said in his ruling. “Monetarily, the Employer’s football program generated revenues of approximately $235 million during the nine year period 2003 – 2012 through its participation in the NCAA Division I and Big Ten Conference that were generated through ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales and licensing agreements. The Employer was able to utilize this economic benefit provided by the services of its football team in any manner it chose.”

Predictably, Northwestern issued a statement saying it would appeal the ruling to the full NLRB. And although they were not directly involved with the case, the NCAA issued a statement -- latter parroted by all of the major NCAA conferences, who stand to lose the most by the ruling -- full of disingenuous claims about the sanctity of the student-athlete.

“We want student athletes -- 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues -- focused on what matters most -- finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement made all the more mendacious in light of a Real Sports report on Tuesday that 10 percent of 183 student-athletes tested over an eight-year period at UNC-Chapel Hill could not even read above a third-grade level.

Ramogi Huma, president of the recently-formed College Athletes Players Association -- the group that brought the case before the NLRB and an organization Northwestern players can now vote to join -- had some choice words about the student-athlete moniker.

"The NCAA invented the term student-athlete to prevent the exact ruling that was made today,” Huma said. “For 60 years, people have bought into the notion that they are students only. The reality is players are employees, and today's ruling confirms that. The players are one giant step closer to justice."

A step, no doubt, but perhaps not a gigantic one. Andy Staples of has an outstanding summary of what this ruling -- along with another potentially game-changing lawsuit brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon -- means for college athletes.

“This case probably won't get resolved before it reaches the Supreme Court or Congress, so nothing drastic will happen immediately,” he writes.

Nevertheless, “One or all of these challenges will ultimately succeed,” Staples says, “because the people in charge of college sports didn't heed the old saw about what happens to pigs and what happens to hogs.” As profits from major revenue sports like football and basketball grow each year, the greed of the conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches, and NCAA officials becomes more difficult to conceal.

Staples claims that “Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith negotiated a contract on the open market that pays him a $940,484 base salary and includes bonuses such as the $18,447.94 he'll receive because Buckeyes wrestler Logan Steiber won the NCAA title in the 141-pound class this past weekend.” Remember, this was the same school that fired their beloved and successful football coach due to a scandal in which players traded jerseys for tattoos.

"As a student-athlete, you're not allowed to use your persona to get discounted services,” Smith said when the scandal first broke. But as an athletic director, apparently you are allowed to use the performance of your student-athletes to receive bonuses, even those in smaller sports like wrestling.

It’s disgusting. So although we may be a long way from resolving the thorny issue of amateurism in college athletics, yesterday’s ruling means we’re one step closer to seeing some type of fair remuneration for the young people whose talents continue to be grossly exploited for profit.

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