Northwestern football players call themselves union 'pioneers'

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Northwestern University’s standout quarterback Kain Colter, who wrapped up his college football career last fall, called himself and his former teammates “pioneers” in the effort to organize the first labor union for college athletes.

“In a lot of ways, Northwestern prepared me and the football team to take on this challenge to be the pioneers,” Colter said Thursday in an interview with reporters, following two days of meetings with lawmakers.

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Colter, who is leading the effort to help his teammates unionize, said many of the Democrats he met with were receptive to his message.

He and Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, which is trying to unionize the Northwestern players, met with a handful of lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Rep. George Miller (Calif.).

“They wanted to hear from the players, or somebody who was involved in it,” Colter said. “It was really just to inform them from the source and tell them what the players are thinking.”

Northwestern football team’s effort to unionize was buoyed last week by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that paved the way for a union election. The NLRB decided that the players who receive scholarships should be considered employees, and therefore, they can organize a union.

The Northwestern football team will vote on whether to form a union on April 25. The team has 76 scholarship players who are eligible to vote, and the union will need 39 votes to win a majority.

The effort has been met with mixed reactions on Capitol Hill, as Democrats support the push to give college athletes greater protections, but Republicans argue it would ruin the sport.

Colter and Huma hope this is only the beginning of an effort to unionize student athletes from all sports at colleges across the country.

They are calling for stronger protections for student athletes, including medical coverage for up to five years after they finish playing for any football-related injuries such as concussions, as well as a guarantee that the players will not lose their scholarships if they get injured.

“At the heart of the matter, I don't think it's political to say that college athletes shouldn’t be stuck with medical bills, I don’t think it’s a political issue to say that injured players shouldn’t be losing their scholarships, and that half the football and basketball players don’t graduate,” Huma said.

They would also like to see a greater focus on academics.

“When you're dedicating so many hours to your sport, it's hard for you to reach your true academic potential,” Colter said.

But the bigger question for many is whether this union would lead to student athletes being paid salaries, something that is currently prohibited by the NCAA.

Huma shot down that idea.

“There are actually misperceptions that this is about pay,” Huma said. “This is not about salary.”

Democrats have largely supported the players’ effort to unionize.

“These young men make a lot of money for these very wealthy coaching staffs and the university, and I think the discussion is really important,” Sen. Brown said.

But many Republicans are skeptical of the Northwestern football players organizing a union. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, warned the ruling could destroy college athletics.

“Imagine a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet Sixteen game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food, and no classes before 11 a.m.,” Alexander said last week in a statement. “This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”

Colter said his union has never advocated for work stoppages, but even without a union players can boycott a game.

Last fall, the Grambling State University football team boycotted a game against Jackson State University, because they said the football facilities were in poor shape and were not safe to play in.

“If the Final Four participants don’t want to go play, no one is going to make them play,” Colter joked.