Northwestern Football Players Seek Recognition as Workers

Northwestern University football players asked the National Labor Relations Board to recognize them as employees of the school, a step toward becoming the first unionized U.S. college athletes.

The 85 scholarship players are seeking the right to vote on whether to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association in bargaining with the Evanston, Illinois-based school. College athletes aren’t paid, despite generating more than $16 billion in television contracts, as well as revenue from sponsorships, ticket and merchandise sales, and payouts for championships.

Kain Colter, the senior quarterback who is leading the union drive, was the first witness to testify before an NLRB hearing officer today in Chicago. He described the year-round effort players make to stay in shape, practice as a team, and prepare for and play 12 regular-season games.

“If you want to be a great team, you’ve got to have great attendance” at practice and preparation sessions, the quarterback said. “You have to go the extra mile.”

Among the players’ goals are guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former athletes, and compensation for sponsorships. The group also is seeking to establish a trust fund to help former players complete their degrees and push for an increase in athletic scholarships.

‘Always Students’

The university disputes the players’ claim that they are employees.

The players are “first, foremost and always students as opposed to employees,” Northwestern attorney Alex Barbour said at today’s proceeding. Each of the scholarship football players gets the same benefits whether he plays or not, he said.

Scholarships for room, board and books aren’t compensation for playing football; they’re to assist students in financing “a world-class education,” Barbour said. No student-athlete is offered a scholarship unless that student first meets the school’s academic standards, he said.

Barbour said the school would acknowledge the association as a labor organization only if the players were found to be employees under the law and if the scholarship athletes were found to be an appropriate bargaining unit.

Colter, 21, has compared the National Collegiate Athletic Association system to a dictatorship and has said players needed union representation similar to that of professional athletes in the National Football League and National Basketball Association. The Indianapolis-based NCAA, college sports’ governing body, isn’t a party to today’s hearing.

The players’ petition was backed by the United Steelworkers Union, which is paying the player association’s legal fees.

The case is Northwestern University, 13-RC-121359, National Labor Relations Board, Region 13 (Chicago).

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