HENDERSON, Nev. – Ed O'Bannon – yes the Ed O'Bannon – says he is behind the Northwestern unionization effort.
“Just on the strength of speaking out I admire tremendously what that initial player [Kain Colter] did,” said O'Bannon who spoke to CBSSports.com this week.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that could redefine the collegiate model shares some of the same concerns as those Northwestern players will be voting on unionization on Friday. O'Bannon himself said he had trouble making ends meet while at UCLA in the mid-1990s.
“We were talking about those kinds of things back when I was in school,” O'Bannon said during a break at his job in marketing here at Findlay Toyota.
“We just didn't know about how to go about it, how to make it happen.”
Colter, the former Wildcats quarterback, has been the face of the unionization movement since initially endorsing it in late January. A National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled in February that current Northwestern players are employees. As such they are eligible to decide whether to form a union.
That vote comes Friday. Northwestern is opposed to the NLRB's decision. Experts expect challenges and appeals to drag the case out for years.
“You're taught at a young age that you can only act a certain way, do a certain thing, speak a certain way. Everything is so structured,” O'Bannon said. “If you step out of those lines you're going to get wacked.
“When you're at that age and you're on scholarship and you're on someone else's dime, you're taught to keep your head down and keep quiet.”
Unionization is seeking more broad medical coverage and a long-range medical component. The goals aren't that different from those sought by NCAA legislation. But as referenced this week by an NCAA senior official it's a question of whether the reforms can beat several lawsuits to court.
Chief among those is the case now simply known as “O'Bannon.” The former Bruins basketball star is the lead plaintiff in the four-year old anti-trust lawsuit that seeks compensation for use of athletes' images for commercial purposes. At stake are potentially billions of dollars in TV rights and licensing fees.
The trail pitting the NCAA against O'Bannon and other plaintiffs --including Oscar Robertson -- is set to begin June 9.
This week O'Bannon was relaxed and philosophical about not only his role in changing college athletics but the immediate effect of unionization. The big picture in that effort has to do with student-athlete welfare.
O'Bannon went on to say he admired Colter's “courage to not only step up and say something but get his guys to do it as well.”
Seventy-six Northwestern players are eligible to vote to unionize on Friday. They do not all have to do so. For their organization -- College Athletics Players Association – to form a union a majority must vote yes.
Results of the voting aren't expected for days.