Northwestern Players Complete Union Vote; NLRB Review Under Way

Northwestern University’s football players voted today whether to form a labor union in an election with the potential to change college sports.

The vote came a month after a National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled Wildcat scholarship football players are employees and eligible to form a union. Yesterday, the NLRB granted the school’s request to review that ruling and said players’ ballots will be impounded until it decides.

At stake is the status quo of a business whose revenue includes more than $31 billion in guaranteed broadcast contracts involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the five most powerful conferences. College sports also provides a free education to thousands of athletes, most on teams that don’t make a profit.

“The typical football player, what they want is solidarity, not divisiveness,” said Paul Haagen, a professor of sports and contract law at the Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina. “They have no option as to a non-divisive outcome. That’s got to make it hard.”

With 76 scholarship players at the Evanston, Illinois, school eligible to vote, it will take a simple majority for the union to succeed. The players weren’t compelled to vote.

A Northwestern player who voted said that he was 80 percent sure the team voted no to unionizing, and almost all of the players opted to vote, according to the Chicago Tribune. The player was granted anonymity by the newspaper for fear of repercussions, it said.

Player Leadership

The effort to form a union has been led by former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, head of a group that advocates for the rights of college athletes, and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who in January said in a media conference call that “the system resembles a dictatorship where the NCAA mandates rules and regulations that players abide by without any input or negotiation.”

The group trying to unionize, known as the College Athletes Players Association, is seeking guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former athletes, compensation for sponsorships, a trust fund to help former players finish their degrees and an increase in athletic scholarships.

“Today’s vote clearly demonstrates that amateurism is a myth and that college athletes are employees,” Huma said in a statement. “The NCAA cannot vacate this moment in history and its implications for the future.”

School Statement

Following the election, Alan Cubbage, the school’s vice president for university relations, said in a statement that Northwestern agrees that students should have a voice in discussing important national issues regarding college athletics.

“However, we believe that a collective bargaining process at Northwestern would not advance the discussion of these topics, in large part because most of the issues being raised by the union are outside the purview of Northwestern,” Cubbage said.

The election followed efforts from both sides to sway the players’ decisions.

“Northwestern University has put tremendous pressure on the team to vote against forming a union, but we remain hopeful that the majority of players will feel free to follow their beliefs and vote Yes,” Huma said yesterday in an e-mail.

Cubbage said that the school’s campaign was in line with NLRB procedures and rules.

Trevor Siemian, a Northwestern quarterback, said this month that he would vote against organizing, according to the Chicago Tribune, and coach Pat Fitzgerald also recommended to his players that they turn down the opportunity to unionize.

Trust Issues

“Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know -- me, your coaches and the administrators here -- to what you don’t know -- a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind,” Fitzgerald wrote to the players in an e-mail, according to the New York Times.

Henry Bienen, Northwestern’s president emeritus, said last month that if the school got into a collective bargaining situation with its players, “I would not take for granted that the Northwesterns of the world would continue to play Division I sports.”

School’s Campaign

The NLRB will not count the votes if, after the review, the initial ruling that the students are employees is overturned. If the vote is eventually revealed and the players opted not to form the union, it would be harmful to future efforts by other teams to unionize, according to Brian Paul, an employment relations partner at Michael Best and Friedrich LLP in Chicago.

“Once one domino falls it’s easier to do it for everybody else, but if the Northwestern players vote no, that is potentially just as damaging as the NLRB reversing the decision,” Paul said in a telephone interview.

The unionization effort, along with recent lawsuits seeking to increase college players’ rights, has the potential to upend the business of college sports. The 123 football programs in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision turned a $1.3 billion profit on $3.2 billion in revenue in the fiscal year ended June 2013, according to data schools submit to the U.S. Department of Education.

NLRB Review

In its appeal, Northwestern argued that Chicago NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr ignored key evidence and that the decision “improperly refused to apply the legal precedent established in the NLRB’s 2004 decision in Brown University, in which the NLRB held that the graduate assistants were primarily students, not employees,” the school said in a news release.

The atmosphere surrounding today’s election was “relatively uncommon” because there are substantial outside interests -- those not directly connected to Northwestern -- who might be affected by its outcome, said Haagen, the Duke law professor.

The choice players have was more ideological than practical, as their college eligibility soon will expire and most of them probably won’t be involved with unions in the next stage of their lives, Haagen said in a phone interview.

“The bulk of the Northwestern players are in a transitional period of their lives,” Haagen said. “There is the negotiating of that shift from one place to another, and that makes their position unusual.”

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