Ruling allowing college athletes to unionize could impact Utah

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CHICAGO -- A game changing decision for college football players came out of Chicago on Wednesday.

A federal agency ruled that college football players at Northwestern University can unionize. The decision, which came from the National Labor Relations Board, found that the players qualify as employees under federal law and can therefore create a union.

It’s a case, according to some legal analysts, that would set a precedent for doing the same thing in Utah.

“I think it’s a pretty significant ruling,” said Salt Lake City attorney Greg Skordas.

The ruling came after a former Northwestern quarterback took the lead in trying to get college athletes viewed as not just players, but employees.

“The National Labor Relations Board said today that a scholarship student-athlete is in fact, for the purposes of considering unionization, an employee of the university,” Skordas said.

While the decision only applies to Northwestern, a private institution, Skordas expects to see similar cases pop up in other schools across the country and Utah in the future.

“I think what’s really happening is that student-athletes and athletics in general raise a ton of money for universities,” Skordas said. “And as such, the people that are raising that money should be recognized for that.”

Skordas believes the millions generated by football programs, such as at the University of Utah or Brigham Young University, could very well translate into cases calling for workers’ compensation in the event of injury, as seen in Chicago.

But Ron McBride, a former Utes head coach from 1990-2002, believes student-athletes are already getting a good deal in scholarships.

“Right now, everything is pretty much same across the board as far as what you get scholarship wise, which I think is fair,” McBride said. “You know, you get your books, tuitions, fees paid for. You get year round training tables, you know. The players have a lot of advantages.”

He sees the move towards unions as a divisive one.

“I just don’t see how it will work,” McBride said. “Certain schools would probably have to withdraw from the NCAA because there would probably be two separate entities because you’d have schools that were unionized and schools that weren’t.”

Regardless of what impact, if any, the ruling has in the state, Skordas believes it has changed how many people are now viewing the game.

“You can rest assured that public university students are certainly going to try this,” Skordas said.

Wednesday’s ruling was just the first step in the process for players at Northwestern. University officials have already said they plan to appeal, and if they lose there, they can then decline to bargain with players and sue in court, potentially dragging this out for years.