Unionization ruling overturned, but players are better off today

Ex-Northwestern QB Kain Colter (speaking) didn't 'win' the right for college players to unionize, but schools have addressed a lot of the demands he was looking for.

Matt Marton/Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

In modern media, as in sports, there’s a winner and loser to every story. On Monday, when the National Labor Relations Board overturned a March 2014 regional ruling allowing Northwestern football players to unionize, it marked a "clear victory for the college sports establishment" and a "tough break for the Northwestern football team."

Sorry, but an issue this complicated doesn’t fall neatly into a simple win-loss column.

Northwestern football players only lost something Monday if you’re under the mistaken impression the entire team was united in its quest to make history. We’ll never know for sure, because the results of the unionization vote the team held will now be destroyed before they’re ever counted, but based on reports and the players’ public comments at the time, they most likely voted overwhelmingly "No" themselves.

It was primarily one player, former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, who, with the backing of leading college sports reform advocates, pushed this issue to the forefront. And if you think he or the nascent College Athletes Players Association lost Monday, you haven’t been paying attention to the industry lately.

Over the past 18 months, the NCAA and its members have devoted more time and energy to so-called student-athlete welfare initiatives than at any time in the modern history of college sports. Many of them may have come to pass with or without Colter’s push, but let’s not kid ourselves. March 26, 2014 — the day a Chicago NLRB director declared Northwestern’s players to be employees — served as a giant wake-up call to officials across the industry. Especially when everyone from Congress to "The Colbert Report" took interest in the story.

At the time of its advent, CAPA pushed an agenda calling for schools to use their treasure trove of TV revenue to cover enhanced medical coverage and protections for athletes, increased scholarships and funds for former athletes to complete their degrees. Most of all, they sought for athletes to have a greater voice in the rules governing their careers.

In turn, during the year-plus it took for the NLRB to issue its final ruling, the following happened:

* The Power 5 conferences, through their new NCAA autonomy process, finally pushed through full cost of attendance scholarships, which go into effect at most schools this coming semester, and guaranteed four-year scholarships.

* Numerous schools established "lifetime guarantee" funds to pay for athletes who leave school early to return and complete their degrees.

* Most conferences established more stringent concussion protocols, as well as reducing the number of full-contact practices football teams can hold.

* The NCAA for the first time added a student-athlete with voting privileges to its Board of Directors. The new autonomy process includes 15 athletes among the 80 people with voting power.

Colter and CAPA may have lost Monday’s ruling but not before achieving the vast majority of their stated goals.

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Of course, there’s still a significant faction of anti-NCAA zealots who won’t be appeased until college football and basketball players become full-on professional athletes with million dollar contracts and collective bargaining power. These are the same people who will tell you that 19-year-olds who spend their days training in embarrassingly palatial facilities replete with juice bars and massage suites are "exploited."

But none of that was ever a realistic outcome of the Northwestern decision, which, had it been upheld, would have applied only to the small number of private schools that play high-level football and basketball. The NLRB on Monday dodged entirely the question of whether the players are employees, instead declaring that the entire issue fell outside of its jurisdiction. The fact it could not have been applied universally to both public and private schools played a major factor.

Without question, the "establishment" dodged a bullet Monday. Had the NLRB affirmed the earlier definition of athletes as employees, it could have set off a ripple of consequences, and certainly would have invoked another round of lawmakers’ scrutiny.

But the upshot of this entire 18-month saga is that the establishment started listening. Northwestern players most likely never would have unionized even if afforded the right, but they didn’t need to. They already significantly improved working conditions for their fellow "employees" across the country.