Should college athletics look drastically different in five years, today may prove to be the catalyst.
The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which has been led by Northwestern's Kain Colter, won its case at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Wednesday, which means that Northwestern football players are seen as employees rather than student-athletes, and that they can form a union.
Colter stated his case to the NLRB in February. He tweeted this on Wednesday after the decison was announced.
So proud of my teammates, Ramogi, lawyers, and supporters around the nation! This is a HUGE win for ALL college athletes! #APU— Kain Colter (@KainColter_2) March 26, 2014
Northwestern also issued a statement from the school's Vice President for University Relations, Alan Cubbage, following Wednesday's decison.
"Northwestern University is disappointed by today's ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board finding that Northwestern University's football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees and directing that a secret ballot election be held to determine whether the football players should be represented by the College Athletes Players Association for purposes of collective bargaining with Northwestern University.
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.
"Northwestern plans to appeal today's decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The University will continue to explore all of its legal options in regard to this issue."
The NCAA issued a statement of its own on the NLRB's decision, and it's a lot like Northwestern's.
“While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees," read the NCAA's statement. "We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees.
"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.
"Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. 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. We want student athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”
Now, Wednesday's decision does not mean that all college athletes are free to form a union and start collective bargaining right this instant. First of all, the NLRB's ruling only applies to students at private schools, not public schools. Players at public schools would need to appeal to their state's labor board. Secondly, as Northwestern made clear in its statement, it is going to appeal the decison.
What it does do, though, is set the wheels in motion of college athletes forming a union in the coming years. Should that happen we would likely see drastic changes to the way college athletics work. Everything from increased value of scholarships, concussion reform, improved medical coverage for athletes, athletes being allowed to accept endorsements, and possibly athletes being paid as well.
In other words, college sports will start looking even more like professional sports.