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College Athlete Unionization Effort Gains Steam, Threatens NCAA

A recent ruling has opened the door to unionizing scholarship athletes at major universities. KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says it could have a dramatic impact on the future of college sports. 'Direct Threat' To NCAA

The ruling by National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director Peter Sung Ohr legitimized the bid of Northwestern University football players to create a union. He agreed athletes are employees, not merely students, who have the right to organize.

"That is a clear and direct threat to the NCAA because the NCAA is trying to preserve amateurism," Art said.

Northwestern officials disagreed with the ruling and plan to appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board.

The ruling only applies to the Northwestern University players right now. But Art says it has potential class-action impacts if it's held up by the full National Labor Relations Board and encourages other athletes at other universities to join in the unionization effort.

"The NCAA is very apprehensive about this because it could mean the downfall of one of their key points, which is keeping athletes amateur and unpaid. And that system exists nowhere else in the world but American college sports," Art said.

Athletes Finally Fed Up

It appears that athletes, afraid to speak out in the past, are finally fed up. Art says the NCAA has relied on the fact that the university athletic system changes its student body 25 percent each year. After four years there's a complete turnover.

“Many times the NCAA escapes legal fights by graduating its classes," Art said. "No one is around long enough to carry on the fight through the court system and the courts have often ruled that once a student leaves the university, he or she has no standing. It’s been a great thing for the NCAA to maintain this. But, eventually, it’s going to succeed."

"This could be the way forward for the unionization of athletes," Art continued. "I don’t think unionization idea is necessarily the best but it is a way to get the NCAA to the bargaining table because I do think if they continue to lose in litigation, it’s going to tear down the system.”

NCAA Wants To Stay Nonprofit, Tax-exempt

Art says the NCAA seems to be more concerned about its bottom line than the student athletes.

“It’s not the welfare of the student athlete they’re most concerned with. They want to stay a tax-exempt, nonprofit corporation. But when you watch the Final Four, this is a big deal…on national television. And they’re saying this is a non-exempt, non-profit enterprise? I don’t think so.”

Local Tie To Union Fight

A lot of people in Washington are watching this issue with interest. The current head of the NCAA is former University of Washington president Mark Emmert.

Art says Emmert is in a defensive fight on several legal fronts.

"He’s trying to preserve a system that exists nowhere else in the world and shouldn’t exist in a capitalist system like we’ve got here," he said. "The NCAA has always argued that athletes should be compensated only with a scholarship. Well, the NLRB has bought their argument that they’re compensated. That makes them professional, no longer amateur. And they’re really is no way out of that argument for the NCAA.

“They want to see if they can just graduate these kids, drag it out in the courts long enough for them to go away, and hope that the court rules in their favor at some point that these students don’t have standing. Which doesn’t mean they don’t have a point.”


You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwest and

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.
Art Thiel is a co-founder and writer for the rising sports website Sportspress Northwest. In 2003 Thiel wrote the definitive book about the Seattle Mariners, “Out of Left Field,” which became a regional bestseller. In 2009, along with Steve Rudman and KJR 950 afternoon host Mike Gastineau, Thiel authored “The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists,” a cross between and Mad Magazine that has become mandatory reading for any sports fan who has an indoor bathroom.