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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Northwestern Football Players Win Bid To Unionize

Kain Colter (#2) led the Northwestern University football team's effort to win the right to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board granted the players' request yesterday. The university plans to appeal the decision. ((John Gress/Getty Images)

Kain Colter (#2) led the Northwestern University football team’s effort to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board granted the players’ request yesterday. The university plans to appeal the decision. (John Gress/Getty Images)

Northwestern University says it will appeal a ruling by the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board that will football players at the school form a union.

The NCAA and the Big Ten Conference, which Northwestern belongs to, criticized the decision.

But former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who led the effort to form a union, said he believes players are employees, and he is confident the remaining players at the university will vote to unionize.

Slate’s Mike Pesca joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the implications of the NLRB’s decision for college football.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. And in a few moments: Why is there a shortage of nitroglycerin in hospitals, and what can be done about it?

YOUNG: But we start with football, and the immediate effects of yesterday's decision by the Chicago Labor Relations Board that football players at Northwestern University are effectively employees and can unionize. So many questions. Will the Northwestern players even vote to unionize? If so, who will be in the bargaining unit? Will it spark other challenges from female athletes or other schools' football players who also want collective bargaining rights?

Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who led the Northwestern effort, told ESPN he thinks so.


KAIN COLTER: You know, today has been a huge success for not only Northwestern football players, but for college players around the nation. And, you know, we should find great pride in that, and that we're taking steps, you know, on our journey to secure basic protections and basic rights.

YOUNG: Slate's Mike Pesca joins us from WBEZ in Chicago. And Mike, Northwestern is going to appeal. It's thought this will go all the way to the Supreme Court. But meanwhile, players at Northwestern have been told to vote. What's your sense of what they'll do?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yeah, well, they'll probably - we don't know. In fact, those questions that you listed at the top of the show, the answers are: We don't know, we don't know and we don't know.

YOUNG: You don't know, right.

PESCA: But they probably will, because they're a team and because the organized a protest where they put some branding on their wristbands last year, and because - and this is why it's Northwestern and not another Big 10 school - Northwestern's a private school, and so therefore they have the right, and this is why they were able to take their case to the National Labor Relations Board, not other public institutions.

It gets a little squirrelly, especially some of these big football schools in the South and the Midwest play in right-to-work states, so they wouldn't be able to unionize. But then, jumping ahead a little bit, assuming that the Northwestern players do unionize, the NCAA - if it exists - but the NCAA couldn't have a situation where some players get some benefits, i.e., they're in a union, and other players don't.

So this is really big, and bigger than just Northwestern and bigger than just private schools, and probably bigger than just football.

YOUNG: And, by the way, just tell people what you mean by if the NCAA really exists. I mean, are you saying that the schools kind of run the show, and the NCAA is sort of - stands back and lets them, or...


PESCA: Well, what I am saying is sort of tongue-in-cheek saying that the NCAA right now is fielding and pushing back from assaults on all fronts. Now, they're doing this at a time when they make so much money. They bring in $16 billion from TV rights and ticket sales and so forth, but there are many suits on different fronts winding their way through the courts.

Some of these suits have been taking a long time, like using the images and likenesses of players. That's former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon's suit. A lawyer is suing the conferences. But this is big. This happened quickly, and if you add all this up, there are a lot of people that are saying the writing is on the wall for the NCAA. They're going to really have to reform, and perhaps this suit indicates, or rather this unionization push indicates that the issue of the designation student athlete is the thing that has to change.

YOUNG: Right. And, well, and what are some of the other issues that are raised by this? We all know that - or we've been hearing that the players felt that they had to practice such long hours, that they were effectively working for the school and not getting some of the benefits of the revenue you just mentioned.

PESCA: Yeah.

YOUNG: But they're also talking about health care and having people address concussions, aren't they?

PESCA: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, defenders of the NCAA system, if someone would say, oh, the players should be paid, would always say, well, you kind of are paid. You get a scholarship. So the players in this NLRB labor suit took that statement and said: You know what? That's the consideration. That's our payment. We're really employees.

We have to play football and practice football more than we even have to work. You really have a situation where we're not students. You could call us student athletes, but we're effectively employees, and that's what the Labor Relations Board agreed with.

And their big issues were medical issues, and the fact that if we're student athletes, you don't have to keep our medical claims when we leave the school. In fact, you don't have to do it in the moment. Now, schools usually do, because they want their athletes to get healthy enough to play, but they don't really have to.

And the entire reason that student athlete as a designation exists, if you go back to the founding of the NCAA, the first commissioner, Walter Byers, he invented this term essentially to get around, to do an end-around - football term - of medical suits. And so this Labor Relations Board ruling brings it all back to the very foundation of why student athletes even existed.

YOUNG: Mike, we mentioned Kain Colter, who's trying out for the pros now, and joined forces with the College Athletes Players Association. That group is backed by a former UCLA linebacker, and the United Steelworkers is behind this push on the part of these alumni players to get this unionization. Do you see something like a steelworkers union for college athletes in the future, briefly?

PESCA: Well, it would be really tough to exactly imagine that. But it is a way to get rights, and I think Kain Colter is a fascinating case. He played mostly quarterback in college. He might be in the pros as a wide receiver. But if people say, oh, teams might not draft Michael Sam because he's gay, I would think that this sort of action might put a target on Kain Colter's back.

YOUNG: Which would be a terrible thing for that young man, who, as we said, is hoping to go to the pros. Slate's Mike Pesca, thank you so much.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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