Football players take union push to Hill

The Northwestern University football team’s controversial bid to form a union came to Washington on Wednesday, as leaders of the effort made their case to members of Congress.

A contingent including former star quarterback Kain Colter and Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, sought meetings on Capitol Hill to drum up support for the push to become the first collegiate sports program to organize.

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The effort was buoyed last week by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that paves the way for a union election as early as this month. But the team and its backers are aware of a potential challenge from Republican lawmakers, who are lining up against the plan.

“They know someone will run to Congress,” Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said after a meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Miller, a union ally who serves as the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said Colter and Huma had “no ask” but were simply trying to explain their push for more rights and protections in the multibillion-dollar college sports industry.

Miller said players help generate hundreds of millions of dollars in university revenue annually but have little say in the rules that govern them or the safeguards that are intended to protect them.

“In most instances, this is a one-way relationship,” Miller said.

The NLRB last week ruled that the Northwestern football players who receive scholarships should be considered employees, because of the long hours they spend playing, practicing and in the film room studying their opponents.

As employees, the National Labor Relations Act gives them the right to unionize.

Congressional Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), responded with incredulity to the ruling.

“I haven’t looked at the specifics of this and what would be required, but having formally chaired the House Education and Workforce Committee and worked with the National Labor Relations Act for the last 30 years, I find it a bit bizarre,” he said.

Critics of the plan take exception to the labor board’s designation of athletes as employees.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said college athletes are not workers in any traditional sense.

“I think it’s an absurd idea to unionize intercollegiate athletics,” Alexander said. “What protections do they think they would have if they were employees? They would be fired if they dropped a pass.”

To date, there is no known legislative proposal in the works to block the team’s unionization, and the process could proceed swiftly. 

NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr, who issued the decision, called for an immediate election. Northwestern’s football team is made up of 112 players, including 85 scholarship athletes who would be eligible to unionize.

Northwestern has vowed to appeal the ruling.

“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” the school wrote last week. “Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

The school has until April 9 to appeal.

In the meantime, the NCAA has elected to remain on the sidelines, at least in regard to the brewing fight in Washington.

“The law is fairly clear and consistent with Northwestern’s position, so the NCAA has made no contacts with anyone in Congress attempting to ban the unionization of student-athletes,” spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said.

Miller and other Democrats argued that Congress should stay out of the debate and allow the NLRB system to run its course.

“Let the board do its job,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate HELP Committee.

Still, Democrats have largely supported the labor board’s decision.

“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,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Even though Northwestern is making millions of dollars each year from the football team, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said the school is not taking advantage of the players because they are getting a “great education.”

“While other students are coming out of college with lots of debt, these student-athletes are coming out with no debt,” Roe said.

The NLRB noted that Northwestern’s football team made more than $8 million in profits during the 2012-2013 season.

The scholarship athletes receive an average of about $61,000 each year in student aid, the NLRB said. 

The ramifications of the Northwestern football players unionizing extend far beyond the school, Roe said. He believes players at other private schools could follow suit, placing the sport’s future in jeopardy.

“I think it would be the end of football at private schools,” Roe said. “If you’re a university, and it’s costing you some money to play football, it may just be more trouble than it’s worth.”