Will Ruling Change College Athletics?

I was all set to write a nice feature on former Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, who recently signed on with the Dallas Cowboys. Weeden is planning on visiting his alma mater Thursday to attend the Cowboys spring football practice. However, if Weeden waits around and comes back later he might want to give the quarterbacks at OSU some advice on how to be pros.

Say what? Yes, thanks to a decision handed down Wednesday in Chicago by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, the next step has been taken toward college athletes becoming employees and essentially pro athletes rather than the NCAA preferred term of student-athletes.

A contingent of Northwestern University football players led by quarterback Kain Colter, who has graduated and is working to become a professional football player in the NFL, petitioned and were heard by the NLRB in February with a request that their relationship with Northwestern be considered one of employees and therefore give them the right to form a union.

Following his guideline of rendering a decision within 30 days of the hearing, today Ohr rendered a decision that could forever change college athletics by saying the relationship between Colter and the players with Northwestern was one that made them employees with the compensation being a college scholarship.

"The record makes clear that the Employer's scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school," Ohr wrote.

Ohr continued by stating that the players and certain facets of their lives outside academics are controlled by the University and their direct supervisors, which would be head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff.

"Even the players' academic lives are controlled as evidenced by the fact that they are required to attend study hall if they fail to maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) in their classes," Ohr wrote.

This is just the first step toward college football players moving from the relationship of student-athletes to employees, but it is a substantial step. It could change a lot of the characteristics we currently are used to with college athletics. The decision was not lost nor minimized by the University, in this case Northwestern, and by the NCAA. Everybody had their antenna up on this decision.

Northwestern had this statement from the school's Vice President for University Relations, Alan Cubbage, following Wednesday's decison:
"Northwestern University is disappointed by today's ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board finding that Northwestern University's football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees and directing that a secret ballot election be held to determine whether the football players should be represented by the College Athletes Players Association for purposes of collective bargaining with Northwestern University.

"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.

"Northwestern plans to appeal today's decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The University will continue to explore all of its legal options in regard to this issue."

We've all heard those NCAA public service announcements about how 99 percent of the student-athletes will go pro in something other than sports. Then there are the newer variety that claim the NCAA is there for student-athletes. The truth is, at times, the NCAA hasn't been there.

Sometimes, okay way too much, the NCAA is as much about the almighty dollar at the NFL or the NBA. As a result, the Northwestern players took matters into their own hands and won. Like Northwestern, the NCAA issued the a statement and they weren't very happy about Ohr's decision.

"While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees," read the NCAA's statement. "We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees. We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.

"Over the last three years, 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. 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."

Okay, so what does this mean for Oklahoma State University and the Cowboys and the Cowgirls teams?

First, the NLRB ruling in Chicago only applies to private schools. Public or state supported colleges and universities athletes would have to proceed and seek their own ruling with state labor boards. The situation will be made easier because a precedent has been set with Ohr's ruling in Chicago. If this situation spreads it could mean a lot of changes.

First, I can see the separation speeding up between the haves and the have nots. If this goes through and athletes are considered employees and collecting some sort of salary then a number of schools, certainly Division I FCS and Division II schools. The Division III schools are already non-scholarship.

That might mean that the BCS conferences like the Big 12, SEC, Big 10, Pac 12, and ACC go their own way and leave the others behind. It's been talked about for several years, and now this could speed the process up.

Second, the athletes might truly become employees and not students. Schools, like Oklahoma State, would simply have their own teams that represent them. They would pay the athletes salaries to play and they would absolutely be employees. If the schools keep these teams separate then they become businesses and not a part to the college and educational system.

Therefore, schools could have just football and basketball teams that bring in a return on their investment and cost. Schools operating their teams in this fashion would not be subject to having non-revenue sports and Title IX would no longer be an issue forcing schools to have athletic scholarship and participation equality for women. That would not apply to subsidiary business with the school.

Athletes may not end up liking the deal as much either. Schools aren't going to pay NFL- or NBA-type salaries. Without serious and efficiently organized college athletics then the NFL might join the NBA and Major League Baseball in having a minor league system. Schools would not only be in a biding war with each other but also with professional sports. It is unlikely that the Oklahoma State Cowboys are going to outbid Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys on a player from Mansfield Summit High School outside Fort Worth.

For those players that do agree to play and represent Oklahoma State, in lieu of a scholarship, they will receive a salary but then health care costs, room and board, all of the Nike gear, and the cost of other items as well could be taken out of their salary.

Welcome to pro sports in Stillwater, Manhattan, Norman, Ames, Lubbock and Waco. I personally can't get as excited about that prospect. If a stipend for athletes, a little allowance money, will cause the athletes to reconsider then it may be time.

On the other hand, today's ruling may be like Pandora and the contents can't be stuffed back in the box. If that were the case then there truly would not be much difference between Jerry Jones sitting in his suite at AT&T Stadium and T. Boone Pickens looking down from his suite at Boone Pickens Stadium. The Cowboys on both fields will be pros.

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