Northwestern Football Players Seek Recognition as Workers

Northwestern University football players seeking to form the first union of college athletes have so far presented a weak case that they are employees of the school, the National Labor Relations Board officer presiding over the hearings said.

The football players are seeking the right to vote on whether to be represented collectively by the College Athletes Players Association in bargaining with Evanston, Illinois-based Northwestern. With only one player testifying so far, there’s “nothing on the record that establishes the relationship between a player and a coach,” Joyce Hofstra, the NLRB hearing officer, said during yesterday’s proceedings.

CAPA attorney John Adam countered that it would be repetitive to call more players after the Feb. 18 testimony from Kain Colter, the senior quarterback leading the union drive. CAPA’s argument that students are employees is “on track,” Tim Waters, national political director of the United Steelworkers Union, said in an interview after the hearing. The union has backed the players’ petition and is paying their legal fees.

Joseph Tilson, an attorney for Northwestern, told reporters there’s “no question that the testimony today convincingly demonstrated that they are in fact students.”

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.

NCAA ‘Dictatorship’

Colter, 21, has compared the National Collegiate Athletic Association system to a dictatorship and has said players need union representation similar to that of professional athletes.

The players’ goals include 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.

Northwestern’s athletic department, comprising 19 varsity sports, loses money and needed a subsidy from the university of about $12 million during the 2012-13 year, Steven Green, deputy director of athletics for internal affairs at Northwestern, said in testimony yesterday.

The football program generated about $30 million in revenue in the year through August and about $21.7 million in expenses, said Green, who serves as chief financial officer for the Northwestern athletic department. Those figures don’t include all expenses for football, Bob Rowley, director of media relations for Northwestern, said in an interview.

Title IX

Allowing some male athletes to collectively bargain with the university may cause Title IX compliance problems, which requires women to be offered the same opportunities as men, said Janna Blais, deputy director of athletics for student athlete welfare at Northwestern.

“Title IX law mandates that you equitably provide services, resources, programs to both genders,” said Blais. “We will need to provide benefits to our female athletes in an equitable fashion. I have great concern that we would need to rethink our entire athletics department and what our department is all about.”

Patrick Fitzgerald, head coach of the football team, is expected to testify today, the Chicago Tribune reported. Tilson declined to comment on whether Fitzgerald will appear today.

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

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.