Column: Athletes are winners even on day they lost

The idea that a union shop leader would be able to schedule practice breaks or negotiate travel upgrades for Northwestern football players always seemed a bit preposterous.

Football teams may be collective units but they are run by dictators, as anyone who ever watched Nick Saban in action would surely agree. So it wasn't terribly surprising Monday when the National Labor Relations Board punted on the idea of union representation for Northwestern's players, saying it would disrupt the competitive balance in college football.

Not that the players were all on board with the concept of a union to begin with. The ballots cast in a union election last year were never tabulated and will now be destroyed because they are moot in the wake of the labor board's decision.

That doesn't mean the organizing drive by the United Steelworkers union and the College Athletes Players Association was a waste of time. Far from it, and for that every high school player now pondering scholarship offers should be grateful.

If timing is indeed everything, the timing of the union effort was impeccable. It came amid a seismic shift in college athletics and just before former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon and his team of lawyers headed to court to challenge the mighty NCAA in court on antitrust issues, a fight they wound up winning.

Together, they helped crystallize public opinion over the treatment of big-time college athletes at a time when conferences were signing huge new TV deals that would leave schools swimming in cash.

Together, they woke up college athletic administrators, who previously were far too busy sipping cocktails with fat cat supporters to worry about whether players had enough money to take a date out for pizza and a movie.

''I think by what we did, our voice out there really helped get things going forward,'' former Northwestern player Kyle Prater said.

Prater was one of those voting no, and the guess is he was hardly alone. Northwestern was never the worst place to play college football, and was already offering some of the benefits that other schools had to be dragged kicking and screaming into giving their players.

That included the guaranteed four-year scholarship, which incredibly the NCAA itself wouldn't allow until being called on the carpet on the issue before Congress a few years ago. What should be a fundamental right for any 18-year-old eyeing their future is now just that in the Big Ten, which voted last October to formalize the practice conference-wide.

That didn't come about because athletic directors and coaches were suddenly concerned about the educational rights of their players. It happened because of the Northwestern union drive and the O'Bannon lawsuit, the twin tsunamis that hit college sports head on last year.

Not that you would know it by the official NCAA reaction to the ruling. In a statement, NCAA lawyer Donald Remy had the audacity to take credit for leading the way in athlete reforms, including guaranteed scholarships, free education and unlimited meals.

''The NCAA and its member schools are committed to providing the best support possible for all college athletes and will continue to do so in the future,'' Remy said.

Left unsaid was why the NCAA continues to spend tens of millions of dollars to aggressively try and overturn the federal court decision in the O'Bannon case that gives athletes rights to sell their names and images collectively and receive nominal payment once they leave school.

The truth is the people who run major college football and basketball are so fearful of losing control of their lucrative cartel that they will fight any effort to change the rules, whether it be paying players to pay or allowing them to join a union. That includes a spirited defense against another case circulating in federal court on behalf of former Clemson cornerback Martin Jenkins and others that, if won, could allow a truly free market where players negotiate their own compensation.

The NLRB ruling, by contrast, probably wouldn't have been a real game changer even if it had gone the other way, partly because it affects only a handful of private schools. It is largely symbolic because it is very limited, though it seems likely the ruling will end any further efforts at organizing college sports programs.

Still, the players who signed organizing petitions at Northwestern helped accomplish something. They, along with O'Bannon, shook up a cozy universe where the players who provided the entertainment got nothing while everyone around them split millions.

Count them as winners, even on a day they lost.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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