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The Race Between Northwestern Football Players and the NCAA to Change College Athletics

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

This week might be the biggest week for college athletics since the second week of June 2010. That was the week that Nebraska bolted from the Big XII to join the Big Ten, the effects of which sent Colorado to the Pac-12, Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, and converted the Big East into a basketball-only conference.  First, the NCAA will meet to grant the "Big Five" conferences (the ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12, and SEC) autonomy to do more for student athletes. Then on Friday, April 25, Northwestern football players will vote whether to join a union.

The only resolution this week will come from the NCAA. After the Northwestern players cast their votes, the ballots will be impounded, pending resolution of Northwestern's appeal of the NLRB ruling that declared football players to be University employees. If Northwestern wins their appeal, we may never find out what the players voted.

But the NCAA's actions will be known this week, and college athletics won't be the same ever again. At the heart of the change is that the NCAA's big football programs will be granted autonomy to do more for athletes. The big schools have wanted to do this for some time, recognizing the disparity between the revenue that sports bring in and the benefits that scholarship athletes are allowed to receive. Take UConn's Shabazz Napier, who famously said that he sometimes couldn't afford to eat.

Whether you believe his story or not, the NCAA is finally waking up to the fact that business as usual won't work anymore. Thank Kain Colter and his teammates at Northwestern for that in part. The race is on to see if the NCAA can reform itself enough to prevent critics from taking the next moves to force the issue.

It's not just the Northwestern union case that's forcing the NCAA's hand. It's also the Ed O'Bannon and Sam Keller lawsuit over revenues from using the names and likenesses of players to generate revenue for schools. It's lawsuits over concussions and the nature of non-negotiable college scholarships, where each school offers potential student athletes the same scholarship. Outside of college football, that would be considered price fixing and would be subject to anti-trust laws. The NCAA lost an anti-trust battle over television rights in the mid 1980's, and likely recognizes they can lose here again.

SB Nation has provided a fairly comprehensive overview over what the NCAA is doing to change itself to try and ward off unions and further litigation. It starts with allowing the "Big Five " to modify the rules. It starts with funding the true cost of college for players. Players will be able to receive money to travel home and get their family to championship events. The "Big Five" claim that their plans to rectify these issues in the past have been thwarted by smaller schools that can't afford giving athletes more.  Now, with the NCAA recognizing that it a losing battle, the smaller schools are agreeing to allow the Big Five to make those changes. Smaller schools likely will be allowed to do the same, either at a school or conference level. Basketball schools such as Creighton might choose to fund basketball scholarships the same way as a Big Ten school like Nebraska would, in order to attract the same level of recruit.  A smaller division 1 school like Nebraska-Omaha likely wouldn't, because they aren't competing with the Nebraskas of the college world for recruits.

Many other ideas are going to be floated, and one of the most significant would be limiting the number of hours that athletes spend on sports. The NCAA argues that athletes can only spend 20 "countable" hours on sports each week, but in reality, the NCAA only counts a fraction of the hours that players spend watching film and in workouts that aren't official practices. The National Labor Relations Board found that the demands on Northwestern players' time were a factor in determining that athletes were indeed employees. Other changes that likely will be floated include four-year scholarship guarantees (no pulling scholarships from a player who isn't panning out so that the coach can give it  to an incoming freshman) and long-term insurance to cover injuries that affect players beyond their playing career.

And let's not forget the Ed O'Bannon case. EA Sports has already waived the white flag and folded their long running NCAA Football video game, recognizing that the video game manufacturer could no longer profit from using the likenesses of college athletes.  Eventually the NCAA will have to acknowledge that schools profit from the likenesses of college athletes, and some sort of compensation is going to evolve. Just look at the jerseys for sale at; you can't tell me that it's just a coincidence that they mostly sell jerseys numbered 3, 8, 22, and 93.

The process starts with the NCAA enabling the big football conferences to expand their rules. The conference commissioners and athletic directors know that current policies aren't sustainable over the long-term, so the question is what they'll agree to do voluntarily, as opposed to waiting to lose in court.

But what about the Northwestern union vote? I suspect that it's unlikely that a union will officially form at Northwestern this year. I suspect the legal wrangling over the NLRB decision is going to take years, not weeks or months, to resolve. And even if the legal case resolves itself quickly, my gut feel is that current players are too loyal to Northwestern and head coach Pat Fitzgerald to authorize a union in 2013. Former quarterback Kain Colter may have led the charge to form a union, but his eligibility is now exhausted. Trevor Siemian won't be splitting snaps at quarterback, and he's been outspoken against the union. I suspect that, when it comes down to it, players will stand with their current leader, and not their past.  No matter how the players vote, it may be a while, if ever, before we learn what they decide.