Could Duke have an athlete union?

akenney@newsobserver.comMarch 26, 2014 

— The ruling by a federal agency in Chicago allowing Northwestern University athletes to form a union won’t change the rules for North Carolina athletes. It does, however, open another option for the sports teams at private schools such as Duke University, according to one college sports researcher.

“For the private schools, it would have some immediate ramifications,” said Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

The decision, made by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, says football players at Northwestern are employees of a commercial enterprise, giving them new legal rights while potentially changing the national conversation about “student athletes.”

“If, let’s say, a player or a group of players at a private university wants to do the exact same thing as Northwestern did ... probably is something that would be important if it comes up in another setting with a similar fact pattern,” said Southall, who teaches and researches sports ethics and college sports.

It’s possible that the Northwestern dispute will go as far as the Supreme Court, and at least the federal labor board’s national office, said Southall, whose research institute was once based at UNC-Chapel Hill.

And while the case appears to have no direct bearing on public schools, critics of the athletics program at UNC took it as a win.

Given state law, “it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see a union at UNC. But they may soon be recruiting against other institutions where players actually have their interests represented, where athletes actually have a voice,” wrote Jay Smith, a history professor who has been a frequent participant in the debate over athletics and academics at UNC.

A spokesman for the university did not respond immediately to a request for comment on Wednesday night. Neither did a spokesman for Duke.

Debbie Yow, athletic director at N.C. State University, offered little comment on the Northwestern case, but hinted at its importance.

“We are aware of the developments in this case and will continue to monitor its progress closely,” she said in a written statement.

Southall said he had heard from former and current athletes at three major universities about the Chicago ruling.

“It’s almost as if they can kind of stick their head up a little bit,” he said, meaning new options may become available.

“I think what it does do is reframe discussions, and remove the term ‘student athlete’ from the primary discussion, and focuses on labor law, and quite frankly the U.S. Constitution, and takes it out of the realm of the NCAA manual,” he said. “We have courts and governmental entities that examine quite closely the collegiate model that the NCAA has propagated over the years.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service