Union ruling comes at a bad time for NCAA in battle for control of college sports

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2013 file photo, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (2) wears APU for "All Players United" on wrist tape while celebrates with running back Stephen Buckley (8) and wide receiver Kyle Prater (21) after scoring a touchdown in an NCAA college football game against Maine in Evanston, Ill. The decision to allow Northwestern football players to unionize raises an array of questions for college sports. Among them, state schools vs. public schools, powerhouse programs vs. smaller colleges. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

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It was that love of the sport that drew outgoing Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter — as well as a scholarship worth up to about $75,000 annually. But Colter, backed by lawyers with the United Steelworkers union, began the union push after growing disenchanted with the time demands placed on him in football that forced him to drop his plans to go to medical school.

Colter also worried about the long-term health risks of football long after players have left school. Players have said they want more research into concussions and other traumatic injuries and insurance and guarantees that they will be covered for medical issues later in life. They also want money for continuing education and for schools to offer four-year scholarship deals instead of year-to-year pacts.

"If we are making sacrifices like we are, we should have these basic protections taken care of," Colter told ESPN. "With the sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of."

One day that could mean money, over and above the $2,000 extra annual stipend that NCAA president Mark Emmert proposed but failed to get implemented over the objections of small-budget schools. There's plenty to go around, with a $10.6 billion contract for television rights to the NCAA basketball tournament and a recent $7.2 billion deal for football bowl games.

The NLRB ruling described how the life of a Northwestern football player is far more regimented than that of a typical student, down to requirements about what they can eat and whether they can live off campus or purchase a car. At times, players put 50 or 60 hours a week into football, the ruling said, qualifying them to be treated as employees of the university and eligible for a union.

By itself, the ruling could be little more than an irritant to private universities and the NCAA. But combined with the antitrust lawsuits — one filed just last week by a prominent attorney called the organization an "unlawful cartel" — they present a clear challenge to the unique way college sports operates.

The model of coaches and administrators making millions while the athletes providing the labor are paid in room and board and books is one that could be difficult to defend in court.

One of those suits, filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon, is scheduled for trial June 9 in California and is being carefully watched by those on both sides of the issue. O'Bannon, who led his team to the national championship in 1995, sued after seeing his likeness in a video game licensed by the NCAA without his permission.

"It's never been about monetary gain," O'Bannon told The Associated Press earlier this week. "It's all about changing the rules and making sure the players, both present and former, are represented as well."

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