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Lawyer says college union years away

Time and possible NCAA rule changes could keep a student-athlete union out of colleges, according to one labor lawyer.

David Murphy, a labor and employment partner with Dorsey & Whitney, said the legal process could take so long that student-athletes who want a union will likely not be in school by the time it is decided if there can be a union.

Northwestern football players are scheduled to vote by secret ballot today on whether to form a union after a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board said the school’s football players are employees under federal law. The university is appealing the ruling.

“It’s almost for sure that they will seal the ballots. They won’t count them,” Murphy said.

Northwestern’s appeal of the NLRB ruling is the first of what could be many roadblocks for a union, Murphy said. The university can also appeal to contest the validity of today’s vote by the players, and after that, the case could go to federal court and possibly even reach the Supreme Court.

“All of that is going to take 2 1/2 to 3 years, and you know what? Most of these guys who are here right now will be long gone,” Murphy said.

It’s not just the prospect that the student-athletes who want a union will be out of school that could stop the movement. The NCAA could also address the players’ desire for better compensation, health insurance and work conditions.

One change has already been made as universities can now provide unlimited meals and snacks to scholarship players as well as walk-ons. The rule change was approved April 15.

And the NCAA’s board of directors took a step toward shifting power to the five largest football conferences Thursday, endorsing a plan that calls for giving 65 of the nation’s biggest schools more autonomy in how to fund scholarships, handle health care and decide other increasingly hot-button issues involving their athletes.

If approved this summer, schools in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC could implement some rules on their own and would get more voting power over legislation that would affect every NCAA member school.

A formal vote on the recommendations is tentatively scheduled for the board’s August meeting, and if it passes then, the transition could begin this fall.

Former Notre Dame linebacker Dan Fox said he has no complaints about how he was treated in college, but he sees a need for changes in the NCAA system. But he doesn’t think a union is needed to make those changes.

“I’m not saying it’s the wrong way to do it. I don’t have a solution,” Fox said. “I definitely think there is a problem that needs to be fixed.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.