When 85 football players at Northwestern University walk into the N Club room on campus Friday morning to vote on whether to form a union, their decision could irrevocably change the nature of college sports.
If Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter and his scholarship teammates choose to be designated as employees eligible for collective bargaining just like university faculty, janitors and administrative staff, it will force universities into a more equitable relationship with athletes.
Last month the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago ruled on behalf of Colter and 84 other scholarship players on a team of about 112. Northwestern appealed the ruling on April 9.
Regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, Peter Sung Ohr’s ruling stunned college sports’ ruling body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and prompted its chief legal officer to comment, “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.”
But critics question the fairness of a system that stuffs university coffers with $16 billion annually but provides players an average scholarship estimated at a meager $23,000 in 2012. They wonder more vocally each year whether that’s enough compensation for players whose skills are the product the very much for-profit college sports industry sells.
Unionizing would only apply to private universities but it would set a precedent that could be picked up by public universities teams should they follow suit and challenge the NCAA and its rules dictating players meals and barring any non-scholarship income.
Among those critics Shabazz Napier of the NCCA men’s championship basketball team from the University of Connecticut may be the most vocal.
“I don’t see myself so much as an employee, but when you see a jersey getting sold [with a player’s name on it] and things like that, you feel like you want something in return,” he told Fox News after the season.
“I don’t think student athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving,” Napier said.
Here’s what you should know about this potentially historic move:
What are the athletes demanding?
The Northwestern players want their health insurance extended beyond their active university years and to guarantee scholarship coverage in the event of a career-ending injury. A win for a union would remove the NCAA from negotiating power.
What are the odds of the voting coming out in favor of unionization?Nobody knows. Players tend to be loyal to their coaches, and Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald opposes the move. Most of the players have remained mum in public. Quarterback Trevor Siemian and linebacker Collin Ellis have said they plan to vote against unionization, but players who would vote for it might keep quiet considering their coach’s stance. The vote is secret so they’re protected from recriminations regardless of their choice.
Does the vote affect the outcome of Northwestern’s appeal?
No. The outcome of the vote won’t even be made public until after the appeals process, which could end up in the courts. Jeffrey Hirsch, associate dean at the University of North Carolina School of Law told International Business Times late last month that the ruling could end up in federal circuit court. If that happens, the battle could play out beyond the active playing years of many of the current Wildcats players.
What would this players’ union do?
First, what it wouldn’t do. The vote would only affect private universities. A separate challenge elsewhere would be required to affect public universities, which host most of the lucrative athletic programs. A Wildcats union would most likely mean their immediate demands to extend health insurance and scholarship guarantees would be met, because the players would be able to lobby for them by simply walking off the field. And they would be protected from recriminations from doing so.
What happens if the Wildcats become unionized?
They would win collective bargaining power and would be represented by the Collegiate Athletes Players Association, the main advocacy group for allowing college players to unionize which has been the main outside force behind the Northwestern push.