by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

(Following is the conclusion of our two-part feature regarding the Big Ten at the forefront of major developments in college sport in recent months. Part One, which ran in our 2015 kickoff issue three weeks ago, can still be accessed on our TGS website homepage.)

Three weeks ago, we spoke of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s statements earlier this year regarding a possible resurrection of long-ago eligibility rules that barred freshmen from competing on varsity teams. Within that story we outlined what was really on the mind of Delany and the conference. But that was not the only recent development involving the Big Ten. Such as the case with the recent August ruling from the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) that dismissed an historic March 2014 decision by a regional NLRB director in Chicago who said that Northwestern’s football players were effectively school employees and entitled to organize.

Seventeen months later, however, a unanimous ruling by the five-member NLRB concluded that letting those same Northwestern football players unionize could lead to different standards at different schools...from the amount of money players receive to the amount of time they can practice. That would, says the NLRB, create competitive imbalances. As if they don’t already exist in college sports...more on this in a moment.

While the NLRB rulings applied to private schools such as Northwestern, and not public universities that do not fall under the agency’s jurisdiction, activists had hoped Northwestern’s example would inspire unionization campaigns by athletes at state schools. The Wildcats were the flash point at the beginning of this labor fight back in January 2014, when a handful of football players called the NCAA a “dictatorship” and announced plans to form the first U.S. labor union for college athletes. Northwestern QB Kain Colter was the key player involved, and while detailing his College Athletes Players Association at a news conference early last year, he was flanked by leaders of the United Steelworkers Union that lent its organizing expertise.

The original ruling in 2014 from the Chicago branch of the NLRB stated that the players should be considered employees with collective bargaining rights. To us, and various other serious followers of sport and this story in particular, that was the right call. Because, as the ruling noted, the Northwestern players were on campus first and foremost to play football for 40 to 50 hours per week, generating $235 million for the school during the 10 years ending in 2013.

Northwestern, the Big Ten and the NCAA, however, all argued against the unionization effort, saying that lumping college athletes into the same category as factory workers would transform amateur athletics for the worse. At one point, Northwestern administrators even sent a document to players outlining potential pitfalls, noting that player strikes could lead to the spectacle of replacement players.

While overturning the original decision, the NLRB essentially stated that the structure of college sports motivated its revision, while noting that intervening “would not serve to promote stability in labor relations.” The Big Ten, with schools in several different states, presented another potential issue, as five are in right-to-work states. And Ohio and Michigan, after the initial NLRB ruling, passed laws declaring that scholarship athletes were not employees. So by wading in, the NLRB would be dealing with one employer–Northwestern–whose primary competitors’ players are either barred from organizing or have to follow a completely separate path to get there.

Faced with this hornet’s nest of legal and jurisdictional issues, the NLRB simply decided to throw the Northwestern players’ labor rights under the bus.

We at TGS, and some of those we respect most on such matters, were not especially surprised at the recent August overturn by the NLRB of the original Chicago decision. It is consistent with various decisions in recent years by the NLRB, filled with political appointees who often serve to protect the interest of the modern universities, many of which share a similar progressive agenda. That the NLRB would eventually side with the schools, and not the players, was a disappointment, but no shocker, to us.

Nonetheless, the latest NLRB decision in the Northwestern case is just another element of the fascinatingly-hypocritical structure of college sports also reflected in a recent NCAA decision that cleared the way for the five biggest conferences, including the Big Ten, to add player stipends to help athletes defray some of their expenses. SEC schools, for example, will give some athletes $3,000 to $5,500 per year on top of a scholarship that pays for tuition, room, board and books.

To this, we just want to shake our heads and walk away. We refer to a piece we wrote at the beginning of our 2014 publishing season, entitled “Meet the Bag Men of College Football,” when we reviewed a published story written by Steven Godfrey for SB Nation in April of 2014. (The review remains on our TGS website homepage). Godfrey detailed many of the specifics of the underground networks existing in the SEC that are used to compensate not only players, but others who could influence the players, almost all in undetectable cold cash. Our suggestion to the five-member NLRB is that they go back and take a look at Godfrey’s story before worrying about unionization rules creating some sort of “competitive imbalance.”

In the meantime, these labor issues aren’t going away. Among other things, there is talk among activists about pursuing antitrust claims. Of course, the NCAA, Big Ten, and the various major conferences and schools that are suddenly becoming fabulously rich thanks to their sports teams could blunt these drives by behaving more fairly and reasonably to the people whose performances draw those billions in revenues. As always, however, we’re not going to hold our breath.

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