College athletes take steps to form labor union
College athletes are ready to unionize.
Members of the Northwestern University football team, under the guidance of former quarterback Kain Colter, have signed a petition seeking to gain protections under the National Labor Relations Act. That would mean they would be recognized as employees in addition to being college athletes.
According to Ramogi Huma, president of the newly formed College Athlete Players Association, an overwhelming majority of the team has signed cards supporting a petition filed Tuesday at the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board to secure their labor rights and union representation through CAPA.
Jim Phillips, Northwestern’s director of athletics, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon, “We love and are proud of our students. Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.”
He added, “Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.”
As a private institution, Northwestern employees are regulated by the NLRB. CAPA president and National College Players Association founder Ramogi Huma told USA TODAY Sports that if CAPA’s petition is granted, “Every FBS football player and Division I basketball player at the private schools will be classified as an employee and will be able to join CAPA.”
One of the most prominent goals of organizing is providing better medical protections and coverage for college athletes.
Huma said lawyers for the United Steelworkers are providing legal services for CAPA in-kind. “They are going to make the case that Northwestern players are protected by NLRB as employees,” Huma said.
To have the NLRB consider a petition to be unionized, at least 30% of the members of a group serving an employer must sign union cards.
The NCAA responded with 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,” the statement said. “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. …
“Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.”
Huma said of the NCAA, which has been discussing reform at the Division I level, said, “They had seven months to conceive a new model, and when they unveiled it, college athletes still did not have a seat at the table. They’re not offering details, and they haven’t even mentioned the word concussion. They’ve ignored us on these critical issues.”
Huma said Colter, who was one of the most prominent faces of the “All Players United” movement during the 2013 college football season, wanted to bring the idea of organizing to the Northwestern team following the season. No players from other schools involved in the APU movement, such as Georgia, Georgia Tech and Big Ten champion Michigan State, have been involved in the formation of CAPA, Huma said.
But United Steelworkers has been supportive since before the 2013 season. “They played a major role,” Huma said.
Northwestern’s players released the following statement Tuesday:
“We Northwestern football players are grateful for our opportunity to play football for a prestigious university and athletic program. However, just as other athletes who compete in multibillion dollar industries have done, we must secure and maintain comprehensive protections by asserting the rights afforded to us under labor laws. We are not taking these measures out of any mistreatment from Northwestern. However, we recognize the need to eliminate unjust NCAA rules that create physical, academic, and financial hardships for college athletes across the nation.”To remain silent while players are denied justice is to be complicit in inflicting injustice on future generations of college athletes.”
The players said they will comply with all Northwestern, Big Ten and NCAA rules and do not plan to comment further.
Phillips’ full statement:
“We love and are proud of our students. Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.
“Northwestern University always has been, and continues to be, committed to the health, safety and academic success of all of its students, including its student-athletes. The concerns regarding the long-term health impacts of playing intercollegiate sports, providing academic support and opportunities for student-athletes are being discussed currently at the national level, and we agree that they should have a prominent voice in those discussions.
“We are pleased to note that the Northwestern students involved in this effort emphasized that they are not unhappy with the University, the football program or their treatment here, but are raising the concerns because of the importance of these issues nationally.
“Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns. However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.”
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