Calling the NCAA "a dictatorship," former Northwestern football player Kain Colter joined national labor leaders in Chicago to announce that the newly formed College Athletes Players Association had petitioned the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.
Some experts envision a long, fruitless battle to successfully unionize, but CAPA founder and president Ramogi Huma said, “we have full confidence that the board will rule in our favor.”
The group has a sizable list of demands that includes financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses, placing independent concussion experts on the sidelines during games, establishing an educational trust fund to help former players graduate and “due process” before a coach could strip a player of his scholarship for a rules violation.
The organization also wants players to receive “cost of attendance” stipends — most major-conference schools agree — and allow them to be compensated for commercial sponsorships “consistent with evolving NCAA regulations.”
There is no push for “pay-for-play” salaries, though.
“A lot of people will think this is all about money; it’s not,” Colter told the Tribune on Tuesday morning. “We’re asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard.”
A former UCLA linebacker who has become an advocate for players’ rights, Huma said that too high a percentage of the billions generated by the NCAA — a reported $5.15 billion by the five power conferences — goes to coaches’ salaries and stadium luxury suites. He said that the NCAA does not protect the interest of players.
“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 multibillion industry that is produced off the player’s talent.”
At the outset, only Division I FBS football players and men’s basketball players will be eligible to join CAPA because they can make the case best that they are employees. At present, only Northwestern football players are involved.
Organizers chose Northwestern because of Colter’s eagerness to step forward. And as a private institution, the school falls under the jurisdiction of the NLRB. Public universities are governed by state law.
The NFL Players Association voiced its support Tuesday, while the NBA and MLB players unions declined comment.
NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said he is confident the NLRB will rule in the NCAA’s favor.
“This union-backed attempt to turn student athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education,” Remy said. “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.”
Brian Rauch, an attorney who specializes in labor law and has represented universities, said that the current law dictates that students pursuing a degree cannot organize. A case involving teaching assistants at New York University was settled before an NLRB ruling.
“I’ve never seen a case regarding athletes,” Rauch said. “It would take a long time and be a long haul considering they are seeking to overturn precedent.”
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said in a statement that he supports some goals of the movement but not the method being attempted.
“Northwestern teaches our students to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact,” he said. “(This) action demonstrates that they are doing so.
“We agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration. (But) Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns.”
Colter initially addressed his concerns in a Sept. 21 game against Maine. He raised awareness for the All Players United movement by joining with athletes from Georgia and Georgia Tech who scrawled “A.P.U.” on sweatbands and towels.
The protests seemed mild, but they were not repeated during the season.
“Northwestern taught me how to be a great leader and thinker,” said Colter, who will graduate in the spring with a degree in psychology. “I hope (coaches and officials) will be proud and agree with me. Coach (Pat) Fitzgerald said he is supportive of anything that makes the student-athlete experience better.”
CAPA officials have filed an election petition, the first step in the union certification process.
Before an election date is set, the regional office of the NLRB has to determine, among other things, if the athletes are employees of Northwestern, as defined by the National Labor Relations Act. A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 7 in Chicago.
If the NLRB regional office sides with the union, the university could appeal the decision to NLRB headquarters in Washington.
If an election were held, the majority of athletes would have to agree to join the union for it to have the legal right to bargain with the university over benefits and wages.
Colter said he had a “relatively easy” time convincing Northwestern football players to sign the authorization cards, adding: “They can see the injustice. It was clear that the football team … was ready to make a change.” Colter began the day with a 7:45 a.m. visit to Fitzgerald’s office in Evanston.
Colter wanted the Northwestern coach to know he would become the public face of an unprecedented effort to create a union — and that an “overwhelming majority” of Northwestern football players, Colter’s former teammates, had signed authorization cards in support.
But those players have opted to keep their support confidential, with United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard explaining: “The players don’t want to be subjected to any harassment or pressure, and we support that. It’s the right position based on not knowing exactly how the NCAA will respond.”
Gerard said Huma first contacted his group in 2000, and union officials were “shocked” that some players struggled to afford necessities such as food and laundry expenses and that their scholarships could be pulled “at the whim of a coach.”
Gerard attended Tuesday’s news conference, saying fans should applaud the union movement because it would make college football “better” by protecting the health of players.
Colter endured major health issues in his final season at Northwestern, including a concussion, shoulder stinger and ligament damage to his right ankle. Last week he participated in Senior Bowl practices and performed well as a receiver. But he returned to Chicago the day before the game because he needs ankle surgery that will be performed later this week.
He said he “loves” Northwestern and received excellent care from the school but added that that’s not necessarily “the norm” in college football.
Asked who will pay for his ankle surgery, Colter replied: “I’d like to think Northwestern would. The handbook states that they will pay for all medical expenses within a year of eligibility.
“I’m just one example of many. Football is a brutal game and who’s to say someone won’t need another major surgery or a knee replacement down the line from playing football?”
Northwestern students voiced support for Colter, with senior economics major James Prince saying: “It’s a bold move and, I think, a good idea. I know college athletes get an education, but a lot of times they bring in more than what they’re getting out.”
Tribune reporters Chris Hine and Alejandra Cancino contributed to this report.
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