Northwestern players union could lay foundation to diminish the NCAA

By Tom Hardesty | Assistant sports editor Published:

The first chunks have fallen off the NCAA edifice.

When a National Labor Relations Board official ruled March 27 that Northwestern University football players have the right to form a labor union -- the first such ruling in the history of intercollegiate athletics -- the death knell was sounded for the NCAA.

To be sure, the NCAA won't go the way of the dinosaur right away, and it may not happen within the next decade. This kind of institutional sea change takes time.

But time is on the players' side -- and it's about time.

The NLRB ruling basically states that college athletes are employees, which of course they are. These athletes work for the school, put in an inordinate amount of time for the school and, most importantly, earn money for the school.

A lot of money. Money that goes to people who didn't earn it, but get to collect it, count it and keep it for themselves.

And I don't buy the archaic argument that college athletes on scholarship are getting a free education. These athletes pay for their education with the time and effort they put in for their school's football program, basketball program, gymnastics program, you name it. It's a lot of time invested, it's a lot of hard work and dedication, there is an inherent risk of injury -- which, should that happen, jeopardizes an athlete's earning potential at the professional level -- and it is a year-round venture when you combine the preseason, the season itself and the off-season training programs.

Whether or not players will ever actually get paid remains to be seen. But what a players union does for the Northwestern football program -- which still must be approved by a vote of the Wildcat players on April 25 -- is give them legal protection as a group.

And we all know who they are seeking protection against: Our friends at the NCAA.

This is the same organization that ran former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor out of college football for exchanging items that he owned for tattoos -- which ultimately cost Buckeye head coach Jim Tressel his job -- while completely ignoring the egregious transgressions of Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and Cam Newton at Auburn that involved some serious cash. And never mind the rape allegations that are still hanging over Jameis Winston and Florida State, which the university has been accused of covering up.

And on and on and on.

Oh, technically the NCAA "investigated" Manziel and Newton. If you can call a one-week dog-and-pony show an investigation.

By contrast, the NCAA absolutely dropped the hammer on USC in the Reggie Bush scandal, even going so far as to strip the Trojans of their 2004 BCS national championship and docking them a program-shaking 30 scholarships over three years -- some of the harshest penalties ever handed out by the NCAA.

The Southern California faithful then watched in disbelief as Auburn and Texas A&M somehow skated unscathed through the Newton and Manziel scandals.

Because of this arbitrary nature of who gets investigated and punished by the NCAA, how severe that punishment is, and why some schools and conferences get their feet held to the fire while other schools and conferences slide by with a wink and a nod is the very reason why there is likely to be a players union in college football.

And the fact that this movement has begun at a prestigious academic institution like Northwestern and not a football factory posing as an institution of higher learning lends instant credibility to a players union, assuming the football team at Northwestern votes to form one later this month.

If the Wildcat players approve a union -- and it would be surprising if they did not -- expect this union to quickly grow in power, stature and influence, spreading to other college athletic programs around the country in short order.

Eventually, college sports will likely fall under the protection of a single union, which would diminish the NCAA's sphere of influence to the point of irrelevancy.

And the NCAA will have nobody to blame but itself.

Email: thardesty@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9446

Twitter: @TomHardestyRC

Facebook: Tom Hardesty, Record-Courier

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