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Student-athlete unions could stall even if Northwestern wins

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Former Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter is leading the College Athlete Players Association (©GettyImages)
Former Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter is leading the College Athlete Players Association (©GettyImages).

The vote heard across college football took place in April, as Northwestern University players cast secret ballots to decide whether to form the first union for college athletes. The effects of that vote - which is being kept under wraps until Northwestern finishes a lawsuit claiming that such unionization is illegal - could very well shake the foundations of sports in the states, from sea to shining sea.

That day was made possible when a regional branch of the National Labor Relations Board deigned student-athletes as "university employees," and thus, eligible for unionization.

The National Labor Relations Board has agreed to hear an appeal made by Northwestern, which claims that the regional group erred in its original judgment. The appeal could take months, even years, before being settled.

While we wait for that decision, this seems as good a time as any to remind ourselves of the possibilities — and limitations — of a ruling in favor of unionization.

If the players are considered university employees despite Northwestern's appeal, that vote mentioned earlier would be revealed. If a majority of the players voted yes to unionize, then the union would next decide whether to engage in collective bargaining with the university to settle issues of pay and benefits.

Of course, Northwestern would surely challenge the players' right to collectively bargain as well, ensuring a length legal battle.

But assuming that the two sides eventually were forced to sit down and bargain, athletes see an opportunity to secure their own portion of the hugely-lucrative pie that is college football. They could also fight for extended health coverage, fully-guaranteed scholarships (though they would now be considered contracts) and other benefits.

Still, these change would only effect private colleges.

These schools only make up a small portion of college football's top teams - only five of the teams to finish in the BCS top-25 rankings last season were private institutions. None of those schools finished in the top-10. 

For public universities, their ability to unionize would be dependent on whether or not their state allowed for collective bargaining by public employees. They would be considered employees of the state, as well as the school.

Five states expressly deny collective bargaining, but many others allow it for only certain types of public sector employees, according to a 2011 analysis by Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com.

Football players in those states, as government employees, would be unable to form unions and negotiate for better compensation and expanded benefits.

Additionally, most of the strictest states on collective bargaining are located in the Southeast - the home of college football's most dominant teams, the Southeastern Conference.

There is no doubting that the Northwestern vote to unionize and the ensuing legal battle will greatly change the college football landscape.

But how far that change extends will depend on further litigation and a fundamental shift in how universities — and the country — view labor laws and student-athletes.

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