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Northwestern Football Players Make Move to Unionize

Effort could change the way college athletics are governed


The Northwestern Wildcats

Players at Northwestern are looking to gain representation by a labor union.

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

It's obvious: Eventually, this entire model of college athletics--this kinda-sorta "amateur" model that really isn't very amateur at all, and leaves the athletes out in the financial cold while everyone else gets rich--is going to crumble. The signs just point so very clearly to precisely that.

In late January of 2014, yet another signal of college football's vulnerability was sent out to the world when players at Northwestern University, under the leadership of former star quarterback Kain Colter, announced that they were moving forward with an effort to be officially represented by a labor union. If successful--and at this point, there's really no way to gauge whether they will be--these players will undoubtedly change the future of college athletics.

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, Ragmogi Huma, president of the National College Players Assocation, filed a formal petition on behalf of the Northwestern players to the National Labor Relations Board. The players are being supported in their efforts by the United Steelworkers union. The NCPA describes itself as a " nonprofit advocacy group launched by UCLA football players that serves as the only independent voice for college athletes across the nation." The group claims 17,000 members at more than 150 colleges nationwide.

Speaking to ESPN after filing the petition, Huma said that the Northwestern players' action was about "giving college athletes a seat at the table."

Said Huma: "Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections."

Added Colter, who spearheaded the movement at Northwestern: "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."

Not surprisingly, the NCAA disagreed.

In his own statement released the day of the petition filing, the NCAA's chief legal officer, Donald Remy, said the Northwestern action would "undermine" the existing student-athlete model.

"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. 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.Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes. 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."

Northwestern, for its part, took a more softened stance. While the university said in its own statement that it didn't believe the players were "employees" and therefore were not eligible for collective bargaining, it also said that it was "proud" of its students for taking a stand.

Said Jim Phillips, vice president for athletics and recreation at Northwestern: "We love and are proud of our students. Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today's action demonstrates that they are doing so.

Northwestern University always has been, and continues to be, committed to the health, safety and academic success of all of its students, including its student-athletes. The concerns regarding the long-term health impacts of playing intercollegiate sports, providing academic support and opportunities for student-athletes are being discussed currently at the national level, and we agree that they should have a prominent voice in those discussions.

We are pleased to note that the Northwestern students involved in this effort emphasized that they are not unhappy with the University, the football program or their treatment here, but are raising the concerns because of the importance of these issues nationally.

Northwestern believes 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."



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