College athletics are a multi-billion dollar business — with most of that revenue generated by college football players. The players are, of course, unpaid — but that isn’t stopping the football team at Northwestern University from trying to form a union.
As reported on ESPN.com, Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, filed a petition at the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of the Northwestern University Wildcats football team. Northwestern U. is located in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill. “This is about finally giving college athletes a seat at the table,” Huma told ESPN. “Athletes deserve an equal voice when it comes to their physical, academic and financial protections.”
Concussions, and the alleged lack of attention devoted to preventing them by the NCAA, represent one of the chief concerns of the Northwestern players and is a big reason why they’re trying to form a union, Huma said:
It’s become clear that relying on NCAA policymakers won’t work, that they are never going to protect college athletes, and you can see that with their actions over the past decade. Look at their position on concussions. They say they have no legal obligation to protect players.”
Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, who reached out to Huma last spring for help in getting the players representation, told ESPN that “we love Northwestern” and that the players have no issue with their treatment by the university, but that the NCAA has failed to adequately address safety issues such as concussions and that they’re seeking to organize on behalf of all college players: “Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship. No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”
In a statement, Northwestern said it supports having a dialogue around the issues and the right of the football team to have a voice in that dialogue, but that it does not support the players organizing through a labor union.
The NCAA issued a statement from chief legal officer Donald Remy:
This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”
Huma and the Wildcats football team are being backed in their efforts by the United Steelworkers union, which will pay CAPA’s legal expenses.
The unionization effort isn’t aimed at getting salaries for the football players, although Huma didn’t specifically rule that out as a long-term goal in the ESPN interview. Instead, the focus is on getting 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.
Jeff Kessler, a Winston & Strawn partner who helped bring free agency to the NFL, told Bloomberg News that the petition will likely be appealed past the NLRB to the courts. Last fall Kessler 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 told Bloomberg News.