Northwestern University Football Players Seek to Form UnionEben Novy-Williams and Scott Soshnick
Members of the Northwestern University football team are attempting to create the first athlete-specific union in college sports, a move they say is aimed at getting more financial and legal rights.
The newly formed College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board asserting the rights of college athletes against National Collegiate Athletic Association rules that they say are unjust.
Northwestern senior quarterback and co-captain Kain Colter said that players need representation similar to professional leagues such as the National Basketball Association and National Football League.
“The system resembles a dictatorship where the NCAA mandates rules and regulations that players must abide by without any input or negotiation,” Colter said on a conference call.
College athletes, who are unpaid, generate more than $16 billion in television contracts alone. They also produce sponsorships, ticket sales, merchandise purchases and championship payouts from the NCAA.
“These athletes generate billions of dollars per year, which pay coaches and athletic administrators multi-million dollar salaries,” said Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the CAPA. “Yet the NCAA scholarship limits leave players with $3,000-5,000 per year in out-of-pocket expenses.”
The NCAA’s annual convention this month followed calls for “transformative change” to NCAA governance and leadership from conference commissioners such as the Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby.
Prior to the college football season, Bowlsby questioned the resource gap between programs and suggested that sports should operate under their own regulations. One of the proposals at the NCAA convention allowed the largest conferences autonomy over financial issues such as stipends for athletes.
The students’ petition was backed by the United Steelworkers union, which will pay the association’s legal fees. The NLRB has received the petition, spokesman Gregory King said in an e-mail.
The petition will likely be appealed past the NLRB to the courts, according to Winston & Strawn partner Jeff Kessler. An attorney who helped bring free agency to the NFL, Kessler in October said he was starting the first college-focused division at a major law firm to represent players, coaches, schools and conferences against the NCAA.
“This proceeding will present the fundamental issue as to whether or not students athletes should be considered employees who can unionize for purposes of the national labor relations act,” Kessler said in a telephone interview.
Colter also read a statement on behalf of his teammates that said the players understand this fight probably won’t be settled while they’re still in college.
“We realize, however, that to remain silent while players are denied justice is to be complicit in inflicting injustice on future generations of college athletes,” he said.
Among the association’s goals are guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former athletes, and compensation for sponsorships. The group also plans to establish a trust fund to help former players complete their degrees and push for an increase in athletic scholarships.
Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal officer, in a statement said the athletes’ attempt to unionize “undermines the purpose of college: an education.”
“Student-athletes are not employees and their participation in college sports is voluntary,” Remy said. “We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”
The move to unionize comes as the NCAA faces legal challenges including a lawsuit by Ed O’Bannon. The former University of California-Los Angeles basketball player alleges the governing body for college sports used his image and likeness in video games without consent. O’Bannon said in a telephone interview that he was happy the players took action.
“This is almost inevitable in light of the various litigations against the NCAA relating to, among other things, the use of likenesses and images,” James Quinn, a senior partner at New York-based Weil Gotshal & Manges, said in a telephone interview. “At some point, with all the money around, surely as night follows day, the folks who are actually producing all that revenue are going to say, ‘We should have some share of it.’”
The NCAA also faces a class-action lawsuit over brain injuries that alleges the organization failed to provide players with proper rules and education involving the long-term effects of head trauma.
Mark Conrad, head of the sports business program at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business, said the athletes have to clear a number of hurdles, specifically that unions typically represent employees. The group would need to effectively argue that student-athletes, who are not paid, constitute employees.
“If the day were to come that athletes get compensated, then I think there’s a much stronger case,” said Conrad, who teaches sports law. “Getting paid by scholarship is not the same thing as getting paid a salary.”
For the NLRB to consider a petition for unionization, 30 percent of the group’s members must sign union cards. Colter said that an “overwhelming majority” of his Wildcats teammates offered their signatures.
Should it be successful with the Northwestern players, the CAPA’s goal is to represent football and men’s basketball players at the NCAA top level -- considered the two revenue-producing sports. The association may later expand to include athletes in other sports, according to Huma, a former UCLA football player and founder of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group that is assisting the CAPA.
Colter last season became an active voice in Huma’s group after he and about 10 Wildcats teammates played a game while wearing wristbands that read “APU,” an acronym for All Players United. Football players at other schools, including Georgia Tech and Georgia, displayed support for the campaign, a gesture aimed at gaining national attention toward improving the rights of college athletes.
Jim Phillips, Northwestern vice president for athletics and recreation, said today in a statement that the university is “proud” of its students.
“Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world,” Phillips said. “Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.”
Phillips added that, while the issues raised by the group “deserve further consideration,” the school did not consider its student-athletes as employees, and did not believe collective bargaining was the appropriate method to address those concerns.
Colter has also expressed support for the 2009 lawsuit filed by O’Bannon against Electronic Arts Inc. The NCAA last year said it wouldn’t renew its contract with the video-game manufacturer because of the lawsuits.
O’Bannon’s case was combined with another lawsuit against the NCAA and EA for using athletes’ likenesses in video games without permission. EA announced in September that it settled claims against it and will pay athletes $40 million. The second-largest U.S. video-game publisher also said it was canceling its college football title for next year because of legal issues. The NCAA is the lone defendant and said it would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In November U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken granted class-action status to thousands of current and former student athletes, including O’Bannon, who are asking the court to order the NCAA not to block them from entering into licensing deals to get paid when they appear in game footage, television broadcasts or video games.
The NFL Players Association in 2012 passed a resolution supporting Huma’s NCPA and its pursuit of “basic rights and protections for future NFLPA members.”