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Bernstein: Let's See Northwestern Lead

By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) -- "Northwestern University combines innovative teaching and pioneering research in a highly collaborative environment. It provides students and faculty exceptional opportunities for intellectual, personal and professional growth."

That's the very first information available under "Northwestern Facts" on its website, and I believe it all to be true.

I have tremendous respect for NU as a proud institution of higher learning. Several family members have left that campus proudly as graduates, JDs or MBAs, I have friends both professional and personal working in some capacity there right now, and countless more connected in some way. As a truly elite, private school, Northwestern is the class of its conference by a wide margin.

I hold them to a higher standard when it comes to important issues, and I remain hopeful that their position as ground zero for the looming evolution of collegiate athletics can be viewed by their leaders not as a threat, but a historic chance to live up to their well-earned standing.

This is time for the kind of innovation and pioneering of which they speak.

Also read Chris Emma: Unity Too Strong For Northwestern Unionization

Currently, NU officials are in a nearly impossible position: the NLRB ruling that football players are employees has initiated the usual legal lockdown in such situations leading up to a vote on union certification. Any attempt to present some kind of alternative could be seen as unfair labor practice, subjecting them to further action. They are prevented, essentially, from mounting any kind of public relations effort, and that's why it was so curious and unfortunate that coach Pat Fitzgerald was allowed to speak out in the way he did against unionization.

The optics were bad. Here was Coach – already legally judged the boss – hiding behind dark sunglasses and ball cap, standing on the very field where he commands every movement of his charges, and claiming that he's first and foremost an educator, wrapping himself in the cloak of academia as he jutted his jaw and reinforced stereotype. Anybody eventually making this movie would be ripped for such lazy cliché of the management bad-guy pushing back against the uppity employees who should be happy with what they have.

Meanwhile, his bosses huddle nervously to prepare their appeals and protect the status quo of a fatally-flawed system of big-money athletics that's teetering on shifting sands of public opinion, with damning information continually illustrating inherent hypocrisy and unfairness.

I want them to understand that this is bigger than they expect, and beyond the territory of athletic budgeting, travel schedules, and television programming.

This first union vote will likely fail, as Fitzgerald's disproportionate power as the head coach – sorry, educator – has already been wielded effectively enough to discourage his current players from being pioneers in a way that could benefit those who would come after them. That would mean another vote could occur in one year, in which time the issue will only gain steam with similar efforts at other colleges, both public and private.

Doomsday scenarios for collegiate athletics are everywhere to be had, with panicked suits seemingly deaf to the fact that most people understand that there will still be the football and basketball they enjoy, if part of a radically re-imagined business model. As long as the billions of dollars in TV revenue exist, the programming will remain. If this inevitable sea-change is managed intelligently, all that will be missing is the lying, the silly pretense of "student-athlete," and the misguided belief that secondary sports and women's sports deserve any TV money they don't earn.

This could end up in federal litigation, and ultimately at the Supreme Court, where the names of people and institutions become attached to notable judgments.

Northwestern cannot change the fact that it was on the losing side of the initial decision, but it can do better to rise to its identity as a place that truly puts academics first. This story involves sports, but it is more about American labor.

A "highly collaborative environment" should mean just that, beyond legal lines drawn in the sand. Collective bargaining with a union of football players could be managed so both sides can negotiate as such parties do, to a mutual position of satisfaction and disappointment that creates a more equitable workplace.

Something significant has begun that will not be undone, no matter the bluster of fearful coaches and hours billed by powerful lawyers. Northwestern is merely the first battleground for the initial skirmishes, and they are responding as if a business model that treats players more justly is a grave danger.

I expect nothing less than what they purport to be, in their unique position as one of the nation's great universities.

And that is to look at this instead as what they would describe as an "exceptional opportunity for intellectual, personal, and professional growth."

Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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