Last month, the National Labor Relations Board made a surprising decision that recognized football players at Northwestern University as employees of the university, and, consequently, gave them the right to unionize. On Friday, Northwestern football players will hold a vote that will determine whether or not the players uphold the NLRB’s ruling. And while the vote is fast approaching, its results will likely not be known for months.
When did the unionization process begin?
On January 28, 2014, Northwestern football players became the first college athletes to request representation from a labor union. The movement was originally started by former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, who reached out to the president of the National College Players Association (NCPA), Ramogi Huma, in the spring of 2013. In January, Huma filed a petition at the NLRB on behalf of the players. He also filed union cards, which establish a union as an individual’s exclusive bargaining mechanism, for an unknown number of Northwestern players. Huma told ESPN’s Outside The Lines:
This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table. Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections.
The move is supported and backed by the United Steelworkers union.
What is the NCPA?
The National College Players Association is a major advocate for the unionization of college athletes. Huma, a former linebacker for the University of California, Los Angeles, established the association in 2001 after witnessing the injustices of the collegiate athletic system. In 1995, his teammate and football star Donnie Edwards gave an interview in which he said he had no food in his refrigerator. Upon returning home, he found $150 worth of groceries at his door, and was subsequently suspended by the NCAA for accepting the food that reportedly came from a sports agent. Conversely, the NCAA was simultaneously selling Edwards’ jersey for a handy profit. This convinced Huma that college athletes did not have a voice in such issues, a problem he seeks to address through the NCPA.
According to Huma, unionizing is not about money, but rather about covering medical expenses, confronting safety issues, and improving school-practice balance. In other words, issues that are not always covered by scholarships (as recently illustrated by University of Connecticut star basketball player Shabazz Napier’s report that he sometimes went to bed hungry).
Why do Northwestern players want to unionze?
Kain Colter explained:
The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern. We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We’re interested in trying to help all players — at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It’s about protecting them and future generations to come.
Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”
Northwestern students have pointed to the long hours required by football practice as business-like. Football players devote 50 to 60 hours per week to their sport in the month before the season starts, and 40 to 50 hours per week during the season. This is in addition to their normal academic activities, including going to class, doing homework, and finding time for meals and sleep.
Advocates for unionization have also made it clear that their primary priority is not getting paid more, but ensuring that their medical expenses are properly covered and that their scholarships finance the actual cost of attending college (when considering extenuating factors brought about by being an athlete).
That being said, the secondary goals of unionization include being able to accept corporate sponsorships and negotiating a share of the revenue that results from college games.
Why don’t some people want them to unionize?
Some Northwestern players have made it clear that they side with head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s opposition to the unionizing. According to an internal document obtained by CBS Sports, one player said:
This is not what we wanted. How can we get back to being students and not employees? Specifically student athlete status and not employees.
Fitzgerald partially framed the decision as one of loyalty, sending an email to his team reading:
Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind.
Players have also been warned that unionizing could mean the end of Division I football at Northwestern, make it difficult for players to land jobs after graduating, scuttle plans for a $25 million athletic center, and hurt alumni donations. There has also been speculation that if players were to be treated as employees, their scholarships would be taxable. Currently, the Internal Revenue Service does not consider athletic scholarships taxable, nor does it tax them. Huma has argued that unionizing would not change the status of the scholarships.
How likely is unionizing?
At this point, the likelihood of the players deciding to unionize is unclear. Opinions seem split down the middle, and players are not required to vote if they feel uncomfortable; 76 players are eligible to vote, but many have avoided questions regarding their opinions on the matter.
Regardless of the vote’s outcome, it is unlikely that the public will know of its results soon. If players do vote to unionize, it is highly likely that an appeal will be filed by the university for consideration by the full NLRB. If the university refuses to comply or bargain with players, the case could go to court.
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