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Blanchette: Athletes, careful what you wish for

Welcome, football players at Northwestern University, to the wonderful world of work.

On Wednesday, a district executive of the National Labor Relations Board threw a chop block at the school – and by extension the NCAA and the entire college athletic- industrial complex – by ruling that players can unionize as employees.

From indenture to business venture, with the stroke of a pen.

Lots of great things in store for you, Wildcats.

Like taxes. No more 1040EZ for you. But it’ll be great practicum for you accounting majors.

You guys have been agitating for four-year scholarships rather than one-year renewables. So how do you feel about two weeks’ notice instead?

You do realize the school may now require you to rustle up your own work tools, right? Pads, uniforms, helmets. All deductible, sure, but a big outlay. Oh, and transportation to office? Northwestern could play hardball in collective bargaining and say you’re on your own. Even if the office is Ohio Stadium some Saturday.

Hey, you can always strike. And they can always lock you out.

Still, you’re out there. You’re independent. You’re earning. It feels right.


Well, nothing is so ambiguous as those first tentative steps of adulthood.

Or the first dusty flake falling off a monolith.

NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr’s ruling won’t bring down the big rock of the NCAA by itself, and it’s far too limited and preliminary to have immediate impact. An appeal is guaranteed, and if that fails, expect a lawsuit. And technically, it only applies to Northwestern, though it does establish a precedent for private schools. The NLRB does not have jurisdiction over public universities, and right-to-work states – like Alabama, Texas and Idaho – constrain the opportunity of state employees to unionize.

It’s enough to get legislators in Washington back on that stump. Especially now that basketball scheduling has been seen to.

Besides, the NCAA has bigger headaches at the moment – the O’Bannon lawsuit that goes to court in June challenging the use of former athletes’ images for commercial gain, and former West Virginia player Shawne Alston’s restraint-of-trade action over schools not paying the full cost of attendance.

But they’re all part of the tides of revolution that will either drown the NCAA, or force it to build its castle on something other than sand.

Ohr’s ruling was considered the equivalent of a 16 seed finally beating a No. 1 in the NCAA’s ongoing gala.

Not that it was complete vindication for the pay-the-athletes subversives. Ohr’s language made it clear a scholarship is not chopped liver, especially at Northwestern, where it can run to $76,000 a year.

In fact, to Ohr that suggests it’s very much a job that the athletes are performing, especially to the extent they are controlled by their bosses. The NCAA-mandated 20-hour week is, he pointed out, a joke – closer to 40-50 in-season. He noted that at Northwestern, coach and administrator influence in elements such as where they live, what they study and social media activities is anywhere from significant to absolute.

As the workforce that brings in $30 million in revenue to NU, they have the right to bargain, Ohr ruled – not for a salary, specifically, but for, well, something better. Because they’re employees.

Yikes. The E word.

The good capitalists of college athletics – the NCAA, athletic directors, conference commissioners – went scurrying to their socialist talking points in railing against the ruling. In Pullman, Washington State football coach Mike Leach seemed a good deal less steamed.

“I’m not for or against any of it,” he said.

“If somebody wants to be regarded as a professional then actually it kind of suits me … they want everything to be like it is in the NFL, then shortly we’re going to be having a draft. And I for one would be pretty excited about having a whole nation full of quality athletes to draft from.”

Later he surmised, “I guess if somebody doesn’t perform well, I guess you pay them less.”

Right. Just like coaches get docked for losing seasons.

But Leach’s response underscored that the ruling, should it stands, triggers a starburst of questions. If athletes are employees, are these education programs subject to Title IX? Can the cross-country team bargain collectively? What about the NCAA’s tax-exempt status? Will it even be a functioning entity by 2024, when its basketball TV deal ends?

Clutching for every last dollar, and spending even more, without even a suggestion of self-control – turning its fans into consumers and its athletes into chafing employees – is nudging the schools of big-time athletics toward this precipice. If labor boards and courts are starting to turn on them, their only hope may be Congress.

The athletes better hope their union reps are adept as lobbyists, too.