Northwestern University athletes OK’d to Unionize by NLRB

Following years of debate over payment for college athletes, Northwestern University could be paving the way for unionization in college sports, following a recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLRB ruled March 26 that the contract between NU’s football players and the school met the same criteria as employer-employee contracts, which could theoretically enable the team to unionize as employees of the school.

The ruling was preceded by a six-day-long hearing with testimony from several current and former NU players, including Kain Colter, who has been the frontman for unionization efforts by NU’s football team, as well as three school officials. The ruling means that the petition to unionize will now go to the U.S Supreme Court.

According to Alex Putterman, sports editor for The Daily Northwestern, Colter began taking action in spring last year by getting in touch with Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the National College Players Association. Huma filed a petition on behalf of the team with the NLRB.

In September, Colter wore a bracelet with the abbreviation “APU” (for Associated Players Union), and explained that he and several teammates were looking into the possibility of unionizing. On Jan. 28, Colter, backed by Huma as well as representatives from the United Steelworkers Union, officially announced the NLRB petition.

Colter’s efforts were partly fueled by his experience at NU, where he’d originally wanted to study medicine but was unable due to football obligations and graduated with a psychology degree instead.

The debate over payment for college athletes and the general ethics of college sports has be circulating for some time. In a 2011 story for the Atlantic, civil rights historian Taylor Branch outlined and brought light to some major issues in the NCAA and we continue to hear about assorted scandals in college sports. However, the NU players are the first in the history of college sports to make moves towards unionizing and the story itself has opened up dialogue about the treatment of NCAA players.

Skyline Athletics Dean Joe Morello agrees that there are changes that need to happen in college sports, but doesn’t think that unionization is the answer.

“I don’t think the contract between scholarship athletes and the school is exploitative,” Morello said. “The only exploitation that occurs is when students are picked only for athletic performance and aren’t required to perform academically.”

Putterman said that students have been sympathetic toward the players.

“I generally get the sense that people are pretty supportive of it,” he said in a recent phone interview, regarding the team’s unionization efforts. “Northwestern is a fairly liberal campus and people are willing to stand up to eradicate any unfair situations.”

On April 15, eight days after more controversy was sparked when University of Connecticut basketball player Shabazz Napier stated in an interview that his scholarship-issued meal card was not enough to keep himself fed throughout the semester, the NCAA’s legislative council approved a proposal to allow student athletes unlimited meals and snacks.

“The more people get angry, the more the NCAA has to listen,” added Putterman.


Update:the headline of the article was updated to include “by NLRB”. 9:04 .p.m. 4/16/2014