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College football players on the picket line?

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Images of college football players on the picket line instead of the line of scrimmage are way ahead of events, but NCAA officials might be shocked how the issues resonate with fans.

A ruling last week by a regional director of the U.S. National Labour Relations Board said Northwestern University football players on scholarships should be allowed to vote to unionize. They are university employees.

As a practical matter, any final decision is a long way off. The regional action goes to the NLRB board in Washington. Next is a lengthy path of legal appeals that could end in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling, which would apply only to private schools, said football players sign contracts that define benefits, dictate their schedules and subject them to arbitrary dismissal for all manner of reasons.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter led the unionization effort, backed by the College Athletes Players Association, affiliated with the National College Players Association, and with money for lawyers from the United Steelworkers.

Colter and others want extended medical coverage for former players with sports-related injuries, more attention paid to concussions and financial aid for former athletes to finish school.

All this is more than a little awkward for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and affiliated schools, which share in spectacular revenues from football and basketball contracts. Coaches earn sums that would impress Wall Street.

At the very least, why not take care of the athletes who put their skills and health at risk to provide those spectacular returns?

Billion-dollar broadcast contracts and lucrative merchandising promotions fuelled by so-called student athletes are a bit of sham. A lawsuit in California is looking at the uncompensated use of an athlete's image in successful video games and other products.

A few years ago, the NCAA flirted with the idea of a stipend, but that went nowhere. Pay-for-play is not the immediate issue, but rather basic health and education fairness.

For public colleges and universities, the union question would go through state agencies and panels.

The Northwestern ruling suddenly raises more questions than it initially answers. What about college sports that are subsidized by football and basketball, and where do equity issues for female athletes factor into the discussion?

The NCAA ignored long-standing concerns and will now deal with the consequences.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2014 A13

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