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Lawyer says NLRB ruling may give area D-1 hockey teams right to unionize

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The Chicago-based National Labor Relations Board’s ruling affecting football players at Northwestern University could lead to major changes for NCAA teams in the north country by allowing Division I hockey teams at Clarkson and St. Lawrence universities the right to unionize, according to a Syracuse labor lawyer.

The ruling by the board on Wednesday, which allows Northwestern’s football team to bargain with the school as employees represented by a union, could lead other Division I sports teams with scholarship athletes to file petitions at regional National Labor Relations Boards across the country, said John Gaal, labor and employment lawyer at Bond, Schoeneck and King law firm of Syracuse. The firm represents Division I sports teams at Syracuse University.

“It could have some far-reaching implications, and I think some of them were not very well thought out,” Gaal said of the NLRB’s ruling Wednesday. “In the regional director’s view, athletes receive compensation for participating in the sport in the form of athletic scholarships and have the right to unionize.”

There’s huge money at stake — nearly $18 billion alone just in television rights for the NCAA basketball tournament and bowl games. Already fighting a flurry of antitrust lawsuits challenging its control of college athletics, the NCAA can’t afford too many more defeats.

“This is a colossal victory for student athletes coming on the heels of their recent victories,” said Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust law. “It seems not only the tide of public sentiment but also the tide of legal rulings has finally turned in the direction of college athletes and against the NCAA.”

Division I hockey teams have the right to file a petition to the NLRB’s Region 3 office in Buffalo that could allow student athletes to get status as employees and unionize, Gaal said. Division III programs, by contrast, do not have the ability to unionize because athletes do not receive compensation with scholarships like Division I athletes do.

“Clarkson and St. Lawrence universities are good examples, because hockey teams play at the Division I level and can give school aid,” Gaal said. “So (the ruling) could have application in respect to those programs at those schools.”

The Chicago NLRB’s decision is being appealed, and it could take years to determine whether the ruling will be upheld, Gaal said. But that appeal won’t prevent other Division I teams, in the meantime, from seeking the right to unionize by filing petitions at their respective NLRB regional offices.

“The ruling isn’t binding on other regional directors in the country. But now that this decision has been made in Chicago, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was made in other areas of the country that will reach similar results,” he said. “Players at other institutions could proceed down the same path and not wait to see what happens” with the Chicago ruling.

For the NCAA, the timing of an NLRB opinion allowing a union at Northwestern couldn’t have been worse. In the middle of a tournament that earns schools close to $1 billion a year, it is being taken to task not only for not paying players, but for not ensuring their health and future welfare.

Add in revelations like Florida coach Billy Donovan’s new $3.7 million-a-year contract and the $18,000 bonus that Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith got for one of the school’s wrestlers winning an NCAA title, and some are frustrated with the NCAA’s contention that everything it does is done for the benefit of athletes who play for the glory of their school.

“Fifty years ago the NCAA invented the term student-athlete to try and make sure this day never came,” said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the designated president of Northwestern’s would-be football players’ union. “Northwestern players who stood up for their rights took a giant step for justice.”

The players currently at Northwestern may have already graduated by the time the team gets a chance to bargain — if it ever does.

According to federal law, Northwestern football players have 30 days from Wednesday’s decision to vote on whether to authorize the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, to represent them. But Northwestern is expected to appeal the landmark ruling to the NLRB by an April 9 deadline, potentially stalling the union vote. The NCAA is also likely to continue to fight the description of college athletes as employees.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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