One Step Closer To Nation's First College Athletes' Union

Northwestern University football players are now considered employees of the college, the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Wednesday. ESPN senior writer Pablo Torre explains.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So now we turn to a decision that could shake up the world of college football, maybe all of college sports. We've told you previously about a bid by the football players at Northwestern University to be declared employees of the college, arguing that college football is in fact a commercial enterprise that relies on the players' labor to earn profits. Yesterday, a regional director at the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players receiving football grant-in-aid scholarship are in fact employees. It's a decision that puts the employers one step closer to creating the nation's first college athletes union. We hope to have Pablo Torre join us. He's a senior writer for ESPN and a regular contributor to our Barbershop roundtable. And he's with us now. Welcome, Pablo. Thanks so much for joining us.

PABLO TORRE: Hello, Michel. Glad to be with you as always.

MARTIN: So what does this mean? Is there now a union or are there additional steps that have to be taken?

TORRE: There are additional steps that have to be taken. This is the regional sort of center in Chicago of the National Labor Relations Board. The National Labor Relations Board - the (inaudible) - will have something to say about this. Certainly appeals will take this to federal court. And maybe, people are saying, Congress will be involved in the giant issues involved here, including antitrust. So right now this is an enormous seismic step that honestly a lot of people in sports did not see happening. So this is already a victory for the Northwestern potential union, but there's still quite a bit to go.

MARTIN: Now, you know, Northwestern of course says it will appeal. The university wrote a statement that it, quote, 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 - now presumably they made that argument already. What was the NRLB's response to that?

TORRE: Yeah, you know, the NRLB's response was that not all student athletes are created equal. I mean, that's the implication of what they're saying. They specifically began their verdict by noting the $235 million that was earned by the football program between 2003 to 2012. And the NCAA's best friend right now is all of these smaller sports, that's the cloak they're hiding under - the idea that there are all these other student athletes who aren't revenue generators, who aren't full-time employees, but the football players specifically, and certainly you can extrapolate this to the basketball players, those athletes are generating millions of dollars, billions of dollars when you take it to something like March Madness and the TV contracts.

They are living in a completely different world and that's what the NLRB was looking at. The unique status of revenue-generating athletes that really, they changed the face of college sports entirely as a result.

MARTIN: I think people - just by way of explanation, people might be wondering why it is that these student athletes wanted this or were pursuing this course of action. Earlier this year, we spoke with Ramogi Huma. He is president of the National College Players Association, which helps represent the players. And I asked him why they want a union, and this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

RAMOGI HUMA: You know, these are player who, during games, if they're injured, the schools can still choose to stick them with the medical expenses and they can lose their scholarships when they're injured. Obviously graduation rates between football and basketball players hover around 50 percent, which is unacceptable. So over the years it's become evident that unless players have a seat at the table, they're never going to have comprehensive reform and basic protections.

MARTIN: So this goes back to the question I asked you earlier, do they now have that seat at the table?

TORRE: Well, they definitely have more of a seat. The legitimacy and the permanence of that seat I think is what's up to legal appeal, but what they did, what Kain Colter did - who was the former player at Northwestern - Ramogi Human, who you talked about, they were very smart. I mean, they realized that the seat at the table is far more palatable if you're not explicitly talking about being paid like a pro athlete, for example, or even really being paid at all. What these guys did was notice, look, there are some very basic protections we're talking a (inaudible) trust, for example, they could receive after they get their degree.

They're talking about health care, lifetime medical care. They're talking about much of the basic kind of human rights sort of issues that accrue to employees under a very, very wealthy employer. And that seems to be far more palatable to the American public and to appeals courts and to the judicial system than simply demanding we are pro athletes, pay us like NFL players. They're not exactly doing that, but that seat at the table is a very strategic one that they're aiming for.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about what the next steps are. And I also - I understand this is very recent news so you may not have had a chance to report this out, but I am interested in what reaction we're getting in the sports world to this development.

TORRE: Well, the reactions in the sports world - people are surprised. A lot of people thought this would not happen this way, that it wouldn't happen this early, for example, and it wouldn't be as seismic. I mean, the clear verbiage in the decision cited the money that was being accrued to these departments. They were talking about the economic benefits. They were talking about the 40 to 50 to 60 hours being spent by college football players, which clearly delineates (loss of audio). About the other lawsuits that are unsolved in the NCAA, that's the context (loss of audio). The Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, which we've talked about previously on TELL ME MORE, that's slated to start this summer.

We have Jeffrey Kessler, a sports labor specialist attorney, he's talking about forming a class of athletes to sue the NCAA and the ACC and the Big Ten and the SEC on antitrust grounds. All of those lawsuits will find better footing, they'll find perches because of the success of the Northwestern potential union that's being formed now. That is a huge change that will affect everything from how college sports are run financially and legally, to how we watch them, what other sports may be - you know, their impact will be on the other non-revenue-generating sports. We may see a very different picture when we talk about Division I athletics because of this case.

MARTIN: Pablo Torre is a senior writer for ESPN. He's a regular contributor to our Barbershop roundtable. He joined us from New York. Thanks, Pablo.

TORRE: Thank you, Michel.

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