Northwestern Players Complete Union Vote; NLRB Review Under Way

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

Yesterday’s 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. Two days ago, 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.

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.”

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.

$1.3 Billion Profit

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.

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