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Sports

March 28, 2014

Unionization court ruling comes at bad time for NCAA

They’re battling in courtrooms, and could one day meet over a bargaining table. About the only things the two sides in the debate over big-time college athletics agree on is that things are changing.

Schools bringing in hundreds of millions in television contracts. Coaches making kind of salaries that the late UCLA legend John Wooden wouldn’t recognize. Athletes insisting on rights, if not outright cash.

And now a union for football players at Northwestern that would previously have been unthinkable in college sports.

A ruling that the Northwestern football team can bargain with the school as employees represented by a union may not by itself change the way amateur sports operate. But it figures to put more pressure on the NCAA and the major conferences to give something back to the players to justify the billions of dollars the players bring in — and never see.

“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 NCAA said in a statement.

There’s huge money at stake — nearly $18 billion alone just in television rights for the NCAA basketball tournament and bowl games. Already fighting a flurry of antitrust lawsuits challenging its control of college athletics, the NCAA can’t afford too many more defeats.

“This is a colossal victory for student athletes coming on the heels of their recent victories,” said Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust law. “It seems not only the tide of public sentiment but also the tide of legal rulings has finally turned in the direction of college athletes and against the NCAA.”

For the NCAA, the timing of a National Labor Relations Board opinion allowing a union at Northwestern couldn’t have been worse. In the middle of a tournament that earns schools close to $1 billion a year, it is being taken to task not only for not paying players, but for not ensuring their health and future welfare.

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