College athletics: Northwestern athletes seek union protection

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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The argument that college athletes are employees took a formal and historic step yesterday when an undisclosed number of Northwestern football players signed cards seeking union protection.

Those players want the College Athletes Players Association to act on their behalf by collectively bargaining with the NCAA, the governing body of college sports.

“The system resembles a dictatorship,” said Kain Colter, who finished his Northwestern playing eligibility as a quarterback and receiver in December. “They make the rules and enforce them upon the players. Nobody asks the players. We believe we need an entity that represents the players.”

Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, submitted a petition on behalf of CAPA and its Northwestern football players yesterday to the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

The regional board’s ruling on CAPA’s petition to become a union — which is receiving support from the United Steelworkers — can be appealed to the NLRB national board, and the matter could turn into a federal court case.

As a private university, Northwestern falls under the jurisdiction of the NLRB. Public universities such as Ohio State are governed by state labor laws, so any rulings in regard to Northwestern’s petition would affect only private schools.

Colter reached out to Huma’s advocacy group last year, and together with former Massachusetts basketball player Luke Bonner, they created CAPA, which would be the first players’ union in college sports history.

“In the real world, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of promise; however, I’m amazed it’s gotten this far,” said Murray Sperber, visiting professor of cultural studies of Sport in Education at the University of California Berkeley and author of books about college sports reform. “The real world changes in ways you don’t expect. It could get some court decisions that would make it a lot easier. I wonder how many players at other schools would do it?”

The petition filed by Huma needed at least 30 percent of Northwestern’s 85 scholarship players to be in favor of the union in order to be filed with the NLRB.

Colter said an “overwhelming majority of (Northwestern) players signed the (union petition) cards, nearing in on 100 percent.” Those undisclosed players issued a joint statement about CAPA but otherwise asked that Colter act as their spokesman.

“It’s kind of a fascinating thing, but the question is, does it have legs? Will it proceed?” Sperber said. “One of the problems is college players are very transient. Northwestern’s roster today is going to be very different a year from now. Even if you’re certified as a union, just to maintain the union with how many members you need becomes a problem. Getting players at other private schools to do it will be a problem.”

Huma and Colter said one of the initial goals of CAPA is not to have players paid salaries by universities because they already are paid in the form of scholarships provided for services.

Instead of a wage, CAPA has 11 specific goals for player representation in discussions on medical issues, due-process rights, scholarship increases and guarantees, and the creation of an education trust fund.

“The main thing is (players) getting a seat at the table. Everything else can work out when players are plugged in with a voice,” said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who created the National College Players Association in 2001.

The NCAA responded yesterday with a statement from its Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy that said in part: “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said in a statement that the school is “proud” of its players for showing leadership, but that “student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns.”

tjones@dispatch.com

@Todd_Jones

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