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Will Northwestern University football unionize?

By Sara Ganim CNN | 3/25/2014, 9:48 a.m.
When former Northwestern Football player Jeff Yarbrough was recruited in 2003, he was among the top six fastest teens in the state of Illinois. But he fractured both legs during his college career and doctors had to put metal rods and screws in both shins. He's in so much pain, he can barely run. He's only 27 years old. CNN photo.

Northwestern University's president emeritus said that if the players on its football team are successful at forming a union, he could see the prestigious private institution giving up Division I football.

Henry Bienen, speaking last week at the annual conference for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said, "If we got into collective bargaining situations, I would not take for granted that the Northwesterns of the world would continue to play Division I sports."

Bienen, who was president of Northwestern from 1995 to 2009, made his comments during a panel discussion that included a presentation from Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association and the man who helped organize former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter to lead a unionization attempt before the National Labor Relations Board.

Huma talked, as he has for months, about the issues his organization sees as great flaws in the current NCAA model. The NCPA believes that athletes in the revenue-generating sports of college football and men's basketball are taken advantage of by universities, conferences and the NCAA, making billions from games, while the players sometimes struggle with basic needs like medical care, concussion testing and guaranteed scholarships.

In March, the NCPA took its fight before the NLRB in Chicago and presented a case during a five-day hearing. Both sides just recently submitted court briefs and a ruling could come by the end of this month, but will likely be appealed by the losing side and could go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. In short, it could take years before there is a definitive decision.

Bienen didn't specifically speak about players being paid, but if the unionization is successful, that would be on the bargaining table, and critics of pay-for-play say they fear that would hurt the academic side of collegiate athletics.

Bienen alluded to that when he said a win for the players could lead private institutions with high academic standards -- he specifically cited Duke and Stanford -- to abandon the current model in order to preserve academic integrity.

He compared it to the pullback of the Ivy League schools decades ago, when the Ivy League conference decided to opt out of postseason play and to end athletic scholarships, preserving the emphasis on academics for the players.

"In the 1950s, the Ivies had some of the highest-ranked football teams in the country. The Princeton teams were ranked in the top 5 or 10 at that time. They continue periodically to have ranked basketball teams, but they've given up a certain kind of model of sports," he said, adding that "under certain conditions" the same could happen at other private elite universities that "continue to play big time sports."

Jerry Price, senior associate athletic director at Princeton, said that change for the Ivy League allowed those schools to maintain academic integrity in the sports where, at other schools, academics can often be compromised in the name of the game.

"It was sort of a breaking point moment," Price said, saying the Ivy League schools made the decision not to move forward like the bigger conferences -- to "draw the line with the commercialization of what football was becoming."