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Northwestern Univ. Players Sign Union Cards, Enliven Debate About College Athlete Rights

Northwestern Football

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In a move that could transform the very nature of college athletics, football players at Northwestern University have signed union cards and are asking to be represented by the United Steelworkers.  With assistance from Ramogi Huma, founder of the National College Players Association (NCPA), union cards were signed and paperwork was submitted to the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.  While precise numbers were not released, Huma said an “overwhelming majority” of players signed union cards.  For the NLRB to consider a petition, cards must be signed by 30 percent of members, meaning at least 26 of the 85 scholarship players at Northwestern want to be represented by the USW.

Huma spoke to ESPN’s Outside The Lines, which broke the story:

“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.”

For the All Players United movement, last season was a game changer.  On September 21st players from Northwestern, Georgia, and Georgia Tech wore “APU” on their uniforms in a sign of silent protest.  In October, the Grambling football team took part in a one-week protest and forced the cancellation of a homecoming game with interconference rival Jackson State.  They were assisted in their efforts by Huma and the NCPA.

Now, in the offseason, Northwestern players are taking the next step toward changing the system that governs their athletic endeavors.

Northwestern Quarterback Kain Colter helped organize his players to begin the unionization effort.  While detractors of the APU movement try to paint the organization’s efforts as an attempt for college players to get paid, those involved in APU have said from the beginning that this is about changing the entire culture of college athletics.  Colter told OTL:

“The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern,” Colter said. “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.”

Representatives of Northwestern said they support the dialogue about the issues being brought up by players, but do not support their attempts to be represented by a labor union.  In a statement, Jim Phillips, Northwestern vice president of athletics and recreation, said:

“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.”

It will be a long fight for the NCPA and many players do not expect to see the fruits of their labor during their own collegiate careers.  As Kain Colter told the Chicago Tribune, “We’re not expecting a decision to be made right away. It might … go all the way to the Supreme Court.”  The decision is likely to focus on whether the players are considered employees, which is likely going to be a field day for lawyers.  

The NCPA website identifies 11 specific goals for the effort:

1. Minimize college athletes’ brain trauma risks.
2. Raise the scholarship amount.
3. Prevent players from being stuck paying sports-related medical expenses.
4. Increase graduation rates.
5. Protect educational opportunities for student-athletes in good standing.
6. Prohibit universities from using a permanent injury suffered during athletics as a reason to reduce/eliminate a scholarship.
7. Establish and enforce uniform safety guidelines in all sports to help prevent serious injuries and avoidable deaths.
8. Eliminate restrictions on legitimate employment and players ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.
9. Prohibit the punishment of college athletes that have not committed a violation.
10. Guarantee that college athletes are granted an athletic release from their university if they wish to transfer schools.
11. Allow college athletes of all sports the ability to transfer schools one time without punishment.

The demands of the football players mirror the demands of workers negotiating with management nationwide.  Health and safety standards are chief among them. At a time when the top five power conferences generate $5.15 billion, players want to make sure they are taken care of given the money being made by these schools is earned on their backs.

“If you get hurt in school colors,” Huma said, “just because someone labels you an amateur, that doesn’t mean you should not be taken care of for that injury. This is a multi-billion [dollar] industry that is produced off the player’s talent.”

The legal road will be long and the players may not win, but this important statement by young Americans tired of being exploited by a system that looks out for profits rather than safety must be made. It sets the precedent for a future generation to fight for American rights at work.


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