In the first effort by U.S. college athletes to join a labor union, a group of college football players from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who receive athletic scholarships, filed a petition with the Chicago regional office of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union recognition. The football players, who argue that as student athletes they are university employees, are seeking to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).
Kain Colter, Northwestern’s starting quarterback last season, made the announcement of the petition filing on Jan. 28, 2014. He was joined at the press conference by Leo W. Gerard, the president of United Steelworkers and Ramogi Huma, president of CAPA.
Colter said that players’ medical care, especially expenses after graduation, was his biggest concern. “The same medical issues that professional athletes face are the same medical issues collegiate athletes face, except we’re left unprotected,” he said. Colter also supports relaxing transfer restriction, scholarships that cannot be revoked because of injury, and a trust to support players after graduation.
Gerard commented that too many athletes who generate huge sums of money for their universities still struggle to pay for basic necessities, and too many live in fear of losing their scholarships due to injury or accident. “These students deserve some assurance that when they devote weeks, months and years of their lives to an academic institution, that they will not be left out to dry, without the same basic protections that we all expect from the institutions we serve,” he said. The United Steelworkers are providing financial resources to help the players’ union efforts.
In a statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also applauded the players’ filing. “Those players are standing up for themselves and each other in order to achieve the fair treatment all hard working people deserve. Under the system that the NCAA [the National Collegiate Athletic Association] and its member institutions like Northwestern have established, college football and basketball are big business and treat athletes that way,” he said.
Colter testified before the NLRB in a hearing in Chicago on Feb. 18; the hearing will result in an initial determination of whether the college athletes are employees—and not students, as the university contends.
If the Northwestern players receive a ruling that they can be classified as employees under the National Labor Relations Act and that they constitute an appropriate bargaining unit—and the NLRB in Washington then upholds that finding—the ruling would cover football players at all other private colleges and universities. CAPA does not seek to represent non-scholarship football players or athletes who play sports other than football or basketball.
Susan R. Heylman, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in the Washington, D.C., area.