With or without a union, more rights and benefits are coming for college athletes.
Whether the NCAA schools that compete in big-time athletics can provide enough to keep at bay more ominous threats to college sports remains to be seen. Even the failed attempt to unionize the Northwestern University football players could be viewed as progress for those still pushing for reform.
"I certainly don't think this is the end of this type of discussion," said David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and president-elect of the Drake Group, a watchdog group for college sports. "And certainly regardless of what happens, this has energized the athletes' rights movement for years to come."
The National Labor Relations Board on Monday blocked a historic bid by Northwestern football players to form the nation's first college athletes' union.
In a unanimous decision, the board said the prospect of union and nonunion teams in college could lead to different standards at schools — from how much money players receive to how much time they practice — and create competitive imbalances on the field.
The new ruling annuls a 2014 decision by a regional NLRB director in Chicago who said scholarship football players are employees under U.S. law and thus entitled to organize. But Monday's decision did not directly address the question of whether the players are employees, which allowed the organizers of the movement to claim it was only a setback and not a total defeat.
"The door's not closed," said Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player and executive director of the advocacy group, the National College Players Association.
The biggest factor in how it ruled, the board said, was the NLRB's jurisdiction, which extends only to private schools such as Northwestern and Notre Dame. The board repeatedly cited the need for standardized rules and policies in sports. Collective bargaining rights for one team would disrupt that uniformity. Public universities are subject to state labor laws.
Huma and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who became the face of the union movement, said the bid to unionize helped advance NCAA reforms such as extended long-term health coverage for athletes, guaranteed four-year scholarships and the removal of restrictions on meals for athletes. Starting this school year, universities can begin paying stipends worth several thousands of dollars to college athletes to cover cost-of-attendance expenses beyond tuition, books and room and board.
Many in college sports have been pushing these reforms for years.
"Some of the changes that have been adopted were items that were on the Southeastern Conference agenda before the unionization effort was identified," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told The Associated Press by phone. "But certainly as we've dealt with the external issues, the litigation and this, its increased awareness to the extent there is an interest or desire in sharing credit. OK, but we're going to continue to focus on how we improve the support for our student-athletes.
"That's really been our focus from the beginning of the conversation, probably going back to 2010 or so."
Conference leaders have said they would like to decrease the time demands on athletes, give them more flexibility when making the decision to turn professional and provide more continuing education and health care. Some administrators have suggested that compensating athletes for the use of their names, images and likenesses would be reasonable.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the AP he never felt unionization was a serious threat to college sports, especially compared to the legal challenges facing the Indianapolis-based NCAA and its member schools.
"We'll never know, but I would have thought it likely that if the ballots were ever opened we would have found out the unionization effort probably failed," he said.
Last year's ruling against the NCAA in the Ed O'Bannon case, which would allow schools to pay athletes thousands of dollars for the use of their likenesses, is in the process of being appealed. Another case working its way through the court system challenges the rights of schools to cap compensation at the cost of a scholarship. The NCAA and individual member schools are facing numerous lawsuits by former college athletes over treatment of concussions. There is also the possibility of congressional intervention in college sports.
Oklahoma offensive lineman Ty Darlington, who was part of a new student delegation that voted on NCAA legislation at the last convention, said he doesn't believe the majority of athletes want to unionize — but that won't stop reform.
"I feel like we need to work within the system that we have to get the changes accomplished that we need to get accomplished," he said.