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View Count: 107 |  Publish Date: April 06, 2014
Union case could make or break Title IX

This weekend, in Nashville and Arlington, Texas, two groups of college athletes will be undertaking identical assignments:
Travel far from campus. Perform in stressful, demanding situations. Commit countless hours to the assignment. Publicly represent their universities. Follow very specific, often confusing rules. Try to win games. Juggle class work if required. Risk injury.
One group is made up of female basketball players, and the other is male players. Aside from gender, the only other differences are exterior ones. The group in Texas at the mens Final Four will be generating far more attention and revenue than the group at the womens Final Four in Tennessee. A handful of the mens players will go on to earn big money in the NBA.
And that brings us to one of the most interesting issues in the recent ruling by the Chicago regional National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern football players have the right to form a union.
If the ruling is upheld and the union movement extends across college athletics, how exactly will that fit with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination?
And its not just a question of gender. How will a move toward unionization impact athletes - both male and female - in non-revenue sports? Athletes in water polo, baseball, softball, soccer, crew? All have similar working conditions - including time demands, scheduling issues and injury risk - to those that revenue-generating athletes face.
I dont think collective bargaining can proceed without a comprehensive review of all athletics, independent of revenues, said William Gould, a labor law expert and Stanford law professor emeritus.
Gould is on leave from the university after being appointed to lead Californias Agricultural Labor Relations Board by Gov. Jerry Brown last month. Gould served as chairman of the NLRB, has a long and impressive resume in labor relations and has expertise on sports labor issues.
He believes that the recent NLRB ruling fits into existing labor law precedent and will ultimately end up in the courts. The entire process may not be resolved for several years, but in the meantime universities must figure out how to brace for the coming sea change in college athletics.
Title IX, enacted in 1972 yet still not fully implemented, will certainly be part of the consideration.
If players in revenue-producing sports gain in revenues, it will exacerbate the inequity that already exists, Gould said. The collective bargaining process will have to focus on the entire universe of athletes. A failure to do so may squeeze other sports out.
Many college administrators agree that Title IX will play a significant role in how these issues are sorted out. However, most are not willing to speak on the record about the controversial issue that could be the undoing of the NCAA, by addressing what Gould calls the glaring gap between university profits and restrictions on athletes.
There are other forces at work attacking the institutional profit centers. Those include the lawsuit against the NCAA named for Ed OBannon that argues that athletes should be entitled to financial compensation for the use of their image. Another recently filed lawsuit is challenging restrictions on scholarship compensation. And the issue of whether athletes like Cal swimmer and gold medalist Missy Franklin must forego prize money and endorsements to retain their amateur status continues to percolate.
If college sports evolve into a world where star college athletes can obtain their market value, then male athletes would disproportionately benefit, creating a further imbalance in gender equity in college sports. And, many would argue, to a further disconnect between the stated mission of institutions of higher learning and the hard, cold financial reality of college athletics.
The amount of money involved in football and mens basketball continues to escalate to obscene proportions. However, despite the perception that those revenue-generating programs fund the rest of the athletic department, studies show differently. A 2010 NCAA study showed that more than 40 percent of the top football and mens basketball programs dont support even themselves, let alone other sports programs.
There is a concern that Title IX could be used as a scapegoat for college administrators, who could claim reform is impossible because it violates the federal law, one that not many of them choose to fully enforce anyway. That would be in keeping with the long history of Title IX, which is frequently blamed for athletic department choices, such as decisions to drop mens non-revenue sports rather than scale back slightly on football expenses.
Title IX has always been the scapegoat, Gould said. It gets blamed for everything.
The women athletes who will be working hard in Nashville this weekend cannot play the big-money sports of football or mens basketball, yet they will be doing the same job as their male counterparts. Likewise, a water polo player or wrestler does not commit any less of his time and energy to his sport than an offensive lineman or defensive back.
Could what some see as a bold move into a brave new world of college athletics really mean turning back the clock for women athletes?
Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: akillion@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @annkillion

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Time: 2:52  |  News Code: 395709  |  Site: San Francisco Chronicle
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