O'Bannon ruling preserves legacy of Northwestern's failed unionization attempt

    A Federal Appeals court struck down the Edward O'Bannon decision Wednesday, annulling a ruling that would have allowed Division 1 colleges to pay student-athletes up to $5,000 per year. Add that to the National Labor Relation Board’s August decision that effectively ended Northwestern's football team's union fight, and it would appear that all the momentum that briefly made Evanston the center of college football dissipated. 

    But read the rulings and look around the country. Despite two hard losses, it seems like former NU quarterback Kain Colter may still leave a deeper a legacy on the game than any Wildcat in recent memory – even deeper than coach Pat Fitzgerald.

    With their decisions, the appellate court and the NLRB did not maintain the status quo – at least not the status quo that existed in January of 2014, when Colter and the Wildcats became the first college athletes to push for unionization. They instead declined to further reform an NCAA that is already evolving, while leaving the doors open for further change.

    Annulling the $5,000 stipend was really just an addendum to the case. The court unanimously upheld the broader ruling that the NCAA was “not above anti-trust laws” and that its rules on amateurism were too restrictive. On a practical level, the decision forces the NCAA to permit schools to offer scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance.

    This would have been major news – for years, rules limiting scholarship size left some low and middle income athletes scrambling "paycheck to paycheck" to cover basic necessities like food, laundry and travel. It would have been – had the NCAA not already voted to allow members schools to dole out full-cost-of-attendance in April, and distributed $18.9 million to help them do it, in part out of pressure put by the public fight for unionization.

    Contrary to fears that benefits for football players would come at the expense of athletes in other sports, all five power conference schools, including the Big Ten, now offer full-cost scholarship in every sport, men’s and women’s.

    Cost of attendance is tricky. Prices of food and travel vary by school and by the hometown of each individual student. So how much have they gotten? Initial reports estimated athletes would need between $2,000 to $4,000 per year, but schools like Alabama are giving stipends over $5,000. It doesn’t take a MENU student to figure out the rest. Since that $5,000 is greater than a typical student-athlete’s expenses, a de facto (and poorly regulated) pay-for-play system has emerged at some schools, even as federal judges strike down official compensation.

    USA Today reported that NCAA rule changes have put $160 million extra across Division 1 schools in student pockets across division one. Three schools – Auburn, Florida State and Wisconsin – are each spending an extra $2 million on athletic scholarships.

    Colter never really advocated for pay-for-play, though. He instead harped repeatedly on long-term medical benefits, guaranteed scholarships and rules to limit concussions. And in some of these areas, the NCAA has been faster than Justin Jackson in the open field.

    Seven months after the Northwestern voted on unionization, the Big Ten became the first power conference to guarantee scholarships for the duration of enrollment. Five months after that, with the new cost-of-attendance rules, the Big Five conferences also voted to prohibit schools from removing scholarships for athletic reasons, which, while stopping short of Colter’s vision, assures no more students will drop out after being cut.

    Nothing close to a lifetime health plan has been announced, but the NCAA is finally waking up to the reality of concussions. In July of 2014, they issued new recommendations that colleges limit the number of contact practices they hold each week and hire independent doctors evaluate injuries, common sense reforms the NFL has already made. They’ve announced $30 million study to track concussion data and come up with new guidelines. Meanwhile the Power Five conferences adopted new measures, and more schools have hired independent neurologists to watch for injury.

    Of course, Colter and his allies still have a great ways to go before their vision is reached. The NCAA still has not passed mandatory concussion rules and both long-term medical benefits and four year scholarships are nowhere in sight. But rather than end of pay-for-play, Wednesday’s ruling affirmed that an athlete’s scholarship is a form of salary, which O’Bannon’s lawyers Michael Hausfeld said could open the door for players to get a larger cut down the road. Now the judge who made the original O'Bannon decision is presiding over a case that could remove any cap on player compensation and turn college football into a free market.

    And while the NCAA has done little to re-emphasize the student in ‘student-athlete,’ one of the union’s main goals, the 'Power Five' conferences agreed to create rules over the next two years that limit practice time so students can pursue their academic interests. Players and their representatives will have to make sure they follow through, but now they will do so with an extra advantage.

    Representatives from all 65 of those Power Five conference schools took part in that January vote, which instituted full-cost-of-attendance scholarships and prevented students from losing them for athletic reasons. But also included for the first time were 15 student-athletes, three from each conference. And they were integral in the negotiations.

    "They clearly impacted people.” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com. “I would say, going forward, if you're interested in your proposal having a good chance of passing, you need to bring them into the construction of the proposal process.”

    At the end of the day, that’s what the union fight was really about: securing a seat at the table in education’s most lucrative negotiation.


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