Northwestern football players, lead by former quarterback Kain Colter, filed a petition Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board to be formally recognized as employees of the University.
With the help of Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association, "overwhelming majority" of Northwestern scholarship players made strides to create the first labor union for college athletes.
To file the petition, 30 percent of scholarship athletes on the Northwestern football had to sign union cards. This means that at least 26 of 85 players had to participate. If the petition succeeds, which is far from certain, the players would officially form the College Athletes Players Association.
ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” broke the story Tuesday morning.
Labor union talks can be complicated; it’s easy for speculation to get confused for facts. But North by Northwestern is here to break down who’s who, the players’ demands and what this means for college athletics.
Ramogi Huma: Huma is a former UCLA linebacker and president of the National College Players Association (NCPA). He founded the NCPA in 2001 after his teammate, All-American middle linebacker Donnie Edwards unknowingly accepted $150 worth of groceries from a sports agent and was suspended for one game by the NCAA. Colter approached Huma last spring to ask for help in the unionizing effort and Huma is the one who filed the petition on the players’ behalf.
National Labor Relations Board: The NLRB is a “federal agency that protects the rights of private sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions,” according to its website. The NLRB has regional offices and Northwestern’s petition was filed in the Chicago office.
College Athletes Players Association: If the petition succeeds, this nationwide union will be called the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Led by Huma, Colter and ex-UMASS basketball player Luke Bonner, CAPA would allow players to bargain for reforms within the NCAA.
As Huma phrased it in his press conference Tuesday, CAPA’s goal is to give “college athletes a seat at the table,” which he thinks they currently do not have. Contrary to many labor union disputes, the players are not explicitly asking to be paid a salary. The petition’s demands, outlined on CAPA’s website, include:
- Guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former players.
- Minimizing the risk of sports-related traumatic brain injury.
- Improving graduation rates and establishing an educational trust fund to help former players complete their degree and reward those who graduate on time.
- Increasing athletic scholarships and allowing players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships.
- Securing due process rights when accused of a rule violation, and ensuring punishments levied are consistent across campuses.
"The action we're taking isn't because of any mistreatment by Northwestern," Colter said at Tuesday’s press conference. "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," he continued. "The only way things are going to change is if players have a union."
The CAPA website argues that the NCAA is failing to protect players’ rights, including medical care related to concussions and a lack of the share of revenue generated from TV deals and other sources. Huma said the players want a “seat at the table” in NCAA discussions.
The Twitterverse and TV channels alike blew up with a wide range of opinions.
Northwestern’s athletic director Jim Phillips responded with an official statement on behalf of the University, praising his students for their independent thinking but maintaining that "our student–athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration."
NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy had offered a very different response, emphasizing that college athletes are students first: "...Student–athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student–athletes."
An incoming recruit chimed in as well. Senior running back Malcolm Bowman of St. Mark’s School in Dallas, Tex. had this to say about the team’s petition: "I've heard a couple of things about it, so I'm somewhat familiar but not enough to give an intelligent response about it. But I respect [Colter] for trying to enact the change that he passionately wants to see."
The opinion that the players were most concerned about, however, was that of their coach. Colter met with head coach Pat Fitzgerald to tell him about the players’ efforts and plain to petition to become a union.
"It couldn't have gone any better," Colter told “Outside the Lines.” "Obviously, he has employers he needs to think about," Colter said. But he's understanding of what we did, that this is something we feel passionate about, and he wants to make the athletes' experience the best it can be.” Fitzgerald later tweeted his support for his players:
Kain and our student–athletes have followed their beliefs with great passion and courage. I'm incredibly proud of our young men! GO CATS!— Pat Fitzgerald (@coachfitz51) January 28, 2014
Some commentators argued that full–scholarship athletes already get paid – in the amount of tuition. At Northwestern, that comes to a whopping $63,228 per year. They also agree with the NCAA that a college education is more important than a college sports team, and that should be the emphasis placed on college athletes.
On the other side, players and other analysts contend that the NCAA does have too much power, and that the current college sports atmosphere has detracted from the education aspect of the NCAA and college players are being denied revenue and basic rights.