In a decision that could dramatically change the landscape of college sports, especially at private schools including the University of Miami, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University football players will be recognized as employees.
Unless the ruling is overturned on appeal, it sets a precedent for students at private universities, including UM, to petition to form a union, which would enable them to engage in collective bargaining with their universities.
In his ruling, Chicago NLRB Director Peter Ohr said that he "found that all grant-in-aid scholarship players for [Northwestern's] football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are 'employees.' "
As employees, players can bargain for limited contact in practice, guaranteed scholarships and post-career medical benefits, which are some of the union's stated goals.
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Compensation, or "pay-for-play," is not one of the goals.
UM officials declined to comment, but a UM source said the decision was viewed as a bad thing for Miami should it result in players being able to negotiate for benefits.
But Miami attorney Darren Heitner, a partner at Wolfe Law Miami, said it was too soon to tell whether the decision, if upheld, would impact UM positively or negatively.
"If anything it may be a positive more than a negative at first because potential college players may see this as an opportunity to bargain for benefits that they couldn't [get] at a public university," Heitner said. "That scenario of paying players is too far off to be concerned about at the current stage.
"If at some point we see this turn into a true pay-for-play debate, and private universities start ponying up the cash, it could put private universities on a pedestal, for those that can pay players above and beyond. UM might not be in the best position among private schools to do that. But it might give them a competitive advantage over FSU and UF."
Heitner said players might seek more control over equipment, a limit to the number of hours they are required to be involved in football activities and a potential increase in scholarship money. He also said players could request that independent physicians be available to examine head and other injuries during games.
In a scenario of ultimate chaos, Heitner said "there would be potential for lockouts and strikes. We could potentially see universities locking the players out if they come to an impasse. Perhaps there are replacement players that [could be] used."
The Northwestern case began to take shape on Jan. 28, when former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter announced that current players signed union cards and petitioned to form a union in front of the NLRB.
In late February, a five-day hearing between the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) — the name for the union — and Northwestern was held to debate the issue of an employee-employer relationship between football players on scholarship and the school.
“This was a complete victory,’’ CAPA lawyer John Adam said after the decision was announced.
Colter, a senior last season, emphasized that players at Northwestern were not mistreated. Instead, they wanted a voice in the process.
"It is important that players have a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect their well-being," Colter said in a statement. "Football and basketball players generate billions of dollars per year. Players will gain a number of important protections once this union is in place."
In a statement from spokesman Al Cubbage, Northwestern expressed disappointment in the ruling, and said it will appeal the decision to the national office in Washington, D.C. The appeal is expected to be heard shortly.
The NCAA's chief legal officer, Donald Remy, also said he was "disappointed" in the regional board's ruling, adding that athletes play "for the love of the sport, not to be paid."
"Over the last three years,'' Remy's statement said, "our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college."
The marathon hearing sessions drew considerable attention in Chicago, as Colter testified against his former university. Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald also testified, as did former players and university administrators.
Northwestern argued that education always comes first for its athletes and placed blame on the NCAA system.
CAPA lawyers argued during the hearing scholarships effectively act as compensation for athletes, who are treated as employees because of strict rules and special circumstances that do not apply to normal students. Ohr agreed with these assertions.
UM spokeswoman Margot Winick said the university was "declining comment on this," and it's unknown if any UM players are planning to form a union.
Desmond Perryman, father of UM football player Denzel Perryman, said he's skeptical about whether UM players would even form a union, at least initially. He said he has never heard Perryman or other UM players express a desire to be paid, beyond scholarships, or receive other benefits.
"For what all these kids are given, I don't know if it will happen here," Perryman said. "I know they get compensated by the NCAA paying for their education, but sometimes you feel like this should be a little more because of revenue brought into the school. It can cause a lot of chaos."
University of Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley declined to comment because he said he didn't have enough information to form an opinion. "It's not a 'no comment,' " he said. "I've simply seen the headline and that's it. I haven't read the story."
Ramogi Huma, president of CAPA and former football player at UCLA, said "this decision clears the way for other FBS football and Division 1 basketball players at private schools within the NCAA to organize."
Huma worked closely with Colter and the United Steelworkers Union to kick-start the players' unionization effort.
Heitner said though it's not mandatory that athletes at private schools form a union, "it is likely that many of them will choose to do so because they can bargain for greater rights."
Heitner said he doesn't know if the decision will stand, but if it does, "It would make things very convoluted and potentially blow up the system. [And] pay-for-play might be something these athletes negotiate for, which would run counter with NCAA rules."
Miami Herald sportswriters Susan Miller Degnan and Jesse Simonton contributed to this report.