Northwestern Football Players File For College Players Union, Seek Recognition As Employees
College athletes for the first time are "asking to be represented by a labor union," as a group of Northwestern Univ. football players yesterday took formal steps to "begin the process of being recognized as employees," according to Tom Farrey of ESPN.com. National College Players Association President Ramogi Huma "filed a petition in Chicago on behalf" of the NU players, submitting the form "at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board." Huma, "backed by the United Steelworkers union," also filed "union cards signed by an undisclosed number of Northwestern players with the NLRB -- the federal statutory body that recognizes groups that seek collective bargaining rights." Huma said that the move to unionize players at NU started with QB Kain Colter, who "reached out to him last spring and asked for help in giving athletes representation in their effort to improve the conditions under which they play NCAA sports." Colter, a senior who has now exhausted his eligibility, said, "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." He added, "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" (ESPN.com, 1/28).
STANDING TOGETHER: The DAILY NORTHWESTERN's Alex Putterman notes the entity representing the players "would be called the College Athletes Players Association" and was created by Huma, Colter and former UMass basketball player Luke Bonner. CAPA initially would "represent only FBS football and Division I basketball players at private universities, as public institutions are governed by separate state labor laws." Huma said that he "hopes to eventually expand CAPA’s representation to all college athletes." Huma: "This will be the first domino to fall. And it will be a big domino.” Huma added that CAPA will "initially push for improved concussion and medical protection, guaranteed scholarships and additional money to cover college attendance expenses." Huma and Colter "emphasized the need for players to have a 'seat at the table' in discussion of their rights." Currently, only schools -- and not the players themselves -- "are members of the NCAA." Huma said that this "creates conflicts of interest for coaches and trainers, whose jobs are dependent on athletic success above all else" (DAILY NORTHWESTERN, 1/29). In Chicago, Teddy Greenstein notes the group has a "sizable list of demands that includes financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses, placing independent concussion experts on the sidelines during games, establishing an educational trust fund to help former players graduate and 'due process' before a coach could strip a player of his scholarship for a rules violation." The organization also wants players to receive “'cost of attendance' stipends ... and allow them to be compensated for commercial sponsorships 'consistent with evolving NCAA regulations.'” There is no push for “pay-for-play” salaries. Organizers chose NU due to both Colter’s "eagerness to step forward," and the fact that as a "private institution, the school falls under the jurisdiction of the NLRB" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 1/29).
NO INSTANT UNION: YAHOO SPORTS' Dan Wetzel notes yesterday's filing "does not automatically create a players union in college sports or even guarantee that one will eventually form," as NU "must respond to whether it wishes to recognize the union." The school "likely will follow NCAA precedent and deny the players are employees at all," as colleges "prefer to classify them as 'student-athletes.'" If NU "rejects the union, the local labor board will hold a hearing on the matter, listen to both sides and make a determination on who is correct." Even if the union at NU "ends up getting recognized, it would apply to athletes at only private NCAA institutions eligible for membership" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 1/28). In Pittsburgh, Michael Sanserino notes the effort marks the "newest stage in an effort by student athletes to seek a bigger share" of the more than $9B generated annually by D-I college athletics. The union said that schools have "ignored athletes' pleas for concussion overhaul, enhanced health coverage and more help in the classroom." But eventually, the "question will move to whether college athletes should be paid beyond the scholarships and stipends they receive." What the case "boils down to is whether scholarship college athletes are employees of the university." The union "asserts they are," but the NCAA, college athletics' "largest governing body, disagrees" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 1/29). The CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION's Brad Wolverton notes the NCAA, whose schools have "recently discussed giving athletes more rights and better health and safety benefits, defended its amateurism principles." The NCAA in a statement said that athletes are "'not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act' and had no right to organize" (CHRONICLE.com, 1/29).
MOVE CALLED LONG OVERDUE: In L.A., Bill Plaschke writes although labor experts "warn that the universities and the NCAA could fight this movement all the way to federal court, the message and mandate are clear enough to hasten change." UC Santa Barbara Center for the Study of Work, Labor, & Democracy Dir Nelson Lichtenstein said, "This is high-prestige, high-profile players at a good university saying, 'Hey, we want to join a union.' This means something." Univ. of California professor Harley Shaiken: "What the Northwestern athletes are doing is an innovative, long-overdue move. It's not only smart, but possible" (L.A. TIMES, 1/29). ESPN's Mike Greenberg said, "No one is representing their interests. Now exactly what is their interest? ... If their interest is going to be, ‘We want to be paid by our universities,’ that’s going to be an uphill battle. But what if the interest is, 'Once we have our scholarship and we are in place, if we can go make some money on our name, if we can make some money on our likeness, if we can go open up a car dealership and get paid $5,000 or whatever it is, we should have the right and ability to do that'" (“Mike & Mike,” ESPN Radio, 1/29).
TAKING A FIRST STEP: FOXSPORTS.com's Greg Couch wrote this is a "big step in trying to change this system, a smart step." Schools have "shown an eagerness to crush anyone in their way of the escalating billions of dollars in the college-football industry." Couch: "They blew it with the athletes, though, underestimating them." They have been "dismissive of complaints and issues," which is "not so easy when the United Steelworkers are knocking on your door" (FOXSPORTS.com, 1/28). ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel writes regardless of "which side you come down upon ... there’s no question that the NCAA and its member schools brought this upon themselves." They have "dismissed the student-athletes’ concerns, if they ever listened" (ESPN.com, 1/29). ESPN's Bomani Jones said, “We’re just talking about the idea of them coming together to be able to negotiate in their best interest. That’s what the NCAA has done more than anything else: To squelch. ... It also remains to be seen just what the NCAA is willing to do to try to make it stop” ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 1/28).
IDEAL TEST CASE: In Chicago, Phil Rosenthal writes this is "close to an ideal test case." NU is a "private school," and football is a "revenue-producing sport." The players also "may genuinely value their classroom time." Rosenthal: "What's more, Northwestern belongs to the Big Ten, which has its own cable network." Many schools and athletes would "not be able to make the claims these guys will to assert their standing as employees before the NRLB" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 1/29). Meanwhile, ESPN's Greenberg said of Colter, “You could not have handpicked a better person to lead this.” Colter is “mature, sensible and an intelligent young man." So “if this thing is to have any chance of turning into something larger, they have exactly the right person to lead it” ("Mike & Mike," ESPN Radio, 1/29). In Chicago, Brian Sandalow notes Colter during a Sept. 21 game against Maine "wore wristbands with the lettering 'APU' -- All Players United, an organization that looked to advocate for players’ rights" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 1/29).
O'BANNON CALLED MOVE A VICTORY: BLOOMBERG's Soshnick & Novy-Williams report former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, who is suing the NCAA over the use of players' likenesses, "declared victory" after the NU players moved to create the union. O'Bannon said, "I feel like I've already won. It was never about collecting money. It was about bringing awareness, causing conversations. It was about stimulating thoughts to this travesty that's going on at the college level. People are talking. We've won." He added, "I love that they're conscious of their surroundings and conscious of the money that's being made. The players, they're in a unique position in that they made a lot of money for a lot of people, including their respective universities, but don't have a voice. ... The fact that they are organizing themselves and coming together and are standing up for themselves is, in my opinion, a beautiful thing" (BLOOMBERG NEWS, 1/29).