Pressure builds as Northwestern football team union vote nears
EVANSTON, Ill. — No matter what the ballots say, Friday will be historic for college sports.
By 11 a.m. MDT, members of Northwestern University’s football team will have cast the ballots that will decide whether they will form a workers union and start demanding more rights.
It’s a massive step toward changing the longstanding model of the NCAA, and the pressure has been mounting. There is some doubt that a majority will vote for it — even though there initially seemed to be a lot of support on the team.
Since the initial signatures were acquired and the petition was filed in January, the two main forces behind the union push — National College Players Association President Ramogi Huma and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter — went on a whirlwind tour meeting with lawmakers and lobbyists and speaking publicly about the push.
They became especially vocal in February when the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled in their favor. Peter Sung Ohr agreed with their argument that the athletes are employees of the university who make money for their employer and are compensated with an education.
The Chicago director agreed with them on almost every point they made at the hearing — the most important being a recognition that athletes spend 40 to 50 hours a week focused on football — well more than the maximum 20 that is allowed by the NCAA.
But with that win came an influx of dissent from all directions.
Former and current players, high-profile coaches, lawyers, lawmakers, college presidents, even some vocal NCAA reform advocates publicly said they didn’t think a union was a good idea.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who initially tweeted in support of his former starting quarterback initiative, met with the current teammates and told them he didn’t think a union was in their best interest. Two of the team’s top leaders — current quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark — backed their coach and publicly said they would not be voting in favor of unionizing.
“I just hope the NCAA does understand some things do need to change,” Mark told reporters after a spring practice on April 19, “but we do not need a third party to come in between us and the coaches.”
A majority of the players who decide to cast a vote must vote in favor of the union for it to be successful.
Because the university, located in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, is appealing the local director’s ruling to the full NLRB in Washington, it may be months before it is known out how the players voted.
If a review of the Chicago board’s decision is not granted, the votes will be counted at noon. But if it is granted, the votes won’t be counted until the higher board makes its decision. That could be months, or longer.
Meanwhile, today, the NCAA appears to be trying to answer some of the concerns of the reform advocates by proposing changes that would give the five power conferences — Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific-12 — more options in how they treat athletes.
Among many proposed changes, the NCAA may consider allowing schools to increase scholarships to cover the cost of living, and not just the cost of tuition, for athletes.
This all comes weeks after a class-action lawsuit filed by current players who want the NCAA compensation cap to be erased, and more than a month before trial is set to begin in the case of former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon lawsuit’s against the NCAA.
O’Bannon is suing on behalf of current football and men’s basketball players, and is seeking to get them a share of the millions that the NCAA makes off of their likenesses.
What people are saying
The buzz about the ruling to allow Northwestern football players to even consider such a drastic deviation from the NCAA model is coming from over the country. Athletes, coaches, reform activists and even lawmakers are commenting:
NCAA President Mark Emmert: “To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems,” Emmert said. “It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue: “I agree with Ramogi (Huma, who helped organize union efforts) that the athletes need to be heard,” Tagliabue, who now chairs Georgetown University’s board of directors, told the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in Miami last month. But on unionizing athletes, he said, “I think that’s a model that has a place when the debate is about free agency and salary caps and professional careers, but here the debate to me is not about professionalism vs. amateurism. I’m going to create a new word, educationism. If there’s an -ism here, it’s educationism.”
Henry Bienen, Northwestern president emeritus: Speaking at the Knight Commission, Bienen said, “If we got into collective bargaining situations, I would not take for granted that the Northwesterns of the world would continue to play Division I sports.” Bienen said he has also been aware of similar discussions at other private schools — specifically Duke and Stanford universities.
Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer: “Students should get more than what they get,” Meyer told the Ohio State student newspaper, The Lantern. “But it gets so complicated. … [T]o say they should go out and get their own shoe contracts and things … I start hearing that and I’m like, ‘Whoa. What could that do for this great sport? And really, what would that do for college athletics as a whole?”
Ohio State football player Michael Bennett: “I don’t necessarily agree with football players being unionized,” the defensive lineman told The Lantern. “We don’t necessarily see the money, but we are getting a lot of benefit out of our scholarships. It just kind of seems silly to want to be unionized. The cost of living’s going up and I don’t think that our stipend is going up, so obviously a little bit more money is nice, but I’m not really in the business of trying to force people to do that.”
Ohio lawmakers: A state House committee added an amendment Monday to a state budget bill that would ban student athletes at state universities in Ohio — that would include Ohio State — from forming unions. The amendment says athletes “are not public employees based upon participating in athletics for the state university.” The budget bill it’s attached to was expected to go to a vote in the House on Wednesday.
Connecticut basketball star Shabazz Napier: “Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities,” Napier told reporters just days before leading Connecticut to the NCAA men’s championship. “Sometimes it’s that way. I don’t see myself as so much of an employee, but when you see your jersey getting sold, it may not have your last name on it, but when you see your jersey getting sold, to some credit, you feel like you want something in return.”
(After Napier’s comments, Connecticut state Rep. Matthew Lesser said he’ll be drafting a bill next session that will allow athletes at state universities to vote to unionize.
“This isn’t a Connecticut problem. This is an NCAA problem, and I want to make sure we’re putting pressure on them to treat athletes well,” Lesser said.)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: “The way these people are treated by the NCAA and the universities themselves is really unpardonable,” the Nevada Democrat told the Washington Post, saying he will “do anything I can to help.”
The senator said the NCAA “for a long, long time has been an organization that only cares about making money. Their interest in athletes is way down the line as to what they’re interested in. I think these great men and women should be able to at least have money to wash their underwear.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio: After meeting with Northwestern’s Colter and Huma on Capitol Hill last week, Brown said, “College athletes dedicate the same hours to their sport as full-time employees and deserve the same protections as any other worker.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.: On his Facebook page, Alexander called the NLRB decision supporting the athletes’ right to unionize “absurd. … “Imagine a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet 16 game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food and no classes before 11 a.m.” The senator said the decision “will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”
Stanford University: A spokeswoman said the university is monitoring the developments at Northwestern and considers its athletes to be “students, first and foremost.”
Tom McMillen, former basketball player and congressman: Last week at the Aspen Institute in Washington, McMillen slammed the NCAA for neglecting student-athletes’ education: “Kids who are walking out of these schools cannot read. They are getting degrees that are worthless.” McMillen, who now serves on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, said: “If these kids aren’t getting an education, the whole thing’s a sham.”
U.S. Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif.: “Personally, I would love to see students on a campus be students first, athletes second, and to be able to have the kinds of protections of making sure that they have their academic career completed,” Cardenas said, “and that that’s some kind of guarantee, making sure that if they get hurt that they’re not going to be destitute and be forgotten.”
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