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Last updated on Friday, March 28, 2014
(UNDATED) - The possibility of college athletes forming labor unions is uncharted territory according to a labor law expert.
Athletes, if they want, can begin to organize now based on this week's ruling from a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board. At least they can at private colleges and universities since the request to organize was brought by a private school, Northwestern University.
At state-funded schools, athletes might be able to organize, but their rights are not as clear.
"Public universities are governed by state law, and in Indiana, we have criminalized collective bargaining by public employees, so our players don't have a formal law they can organize under," said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, professor of labor and employment law at IU's Maurer School of Law.
That doesn't mean athletes at IU, Purdue and other state schools have no union options.
Northwestern will appeal the ruling to the full NLRB in Washington, arguing that providing a tuition scholarship athletes is not the same type of compensation as a salary paid to a professor or an administrative worker.
"There is a very broad definition of employee under the National Labor Relations Act. There are exceptions for independent contractors, supervisors and managers, and (the athletes) clearly don't fall under any of those exceptions," Dau-Schmidt said.
NLRB rules would govern private schools like Northwestern, Butler, DePauw, Wabash and the University of Indianapolis. But even if the state determined that athletes at IU, Purdue, Ball State and Indiana State could not collectively bargain, Dau-Schmidt says they would likely still benefit from a union.
"If athletes at private schools start negotiating better benefits, such as insurance, public universities will have to do it, too. They would have to follow suit to compete for those athletes."
Would athletes for women's sports teams get the same level of benefits as those men's teams because of Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunity for women athletes? Dau-Schmidt says no one knows yet, but says colleges may try to argue that benefits should be tied to revenue from a particular sport.
"The way the system works right now, football and men's basketball basically subsidizes the rest of the athletic department. There are a lot of female scholarships that come out of football and basketball money."
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