Student Well-Being

Northwestern Football Players Attempt to Unionize, Much to NCAA’s Dismay

By Bryan Toporek — January 29, 2014 3 min read
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On Tuesday, for the first time in the history of college sports, a group of football players from Northwestern University began the process of attempting to become unionized, reports Tom Farrey of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”

While the effort is unlikely to succeed, per legal expert Lester Munson, it could have vast implications for the future of collegiate athletics. For that reason alone, it’s a development that high school student-athletes should follow closely.

Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition on behalf of the Northwestern football players with the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, according to Farrey. With the backing of the United Steelworkers union, Huma also submitted union cards to the NLRB for an undisclosed number of players. (To have the NLRB consider the petition, at least 30 percent of the players must have signed union cards.)

The players must convince the NLRB that they are employees of Northwestern, which “will not be easy,” explained Munson, because they pay to attend the school.

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who helped take a stand against the National Collegiate Athletic Association this past fall with the #AllPlayersUnited campaign, led the charge to form a union among his teammates. At a press conference on Tuesday, he explained the rationale behind the move, per Farrey:

The action we're taking isn't because of any mistreatment by Northwestern. We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We're interested in trying to help all players—at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It's about protecting them and future generations to come."

If the NLRB certifies the petition, the athletes will join the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which was created by Huma, Colter, and Luke Bonner, a former UMass basketball player, and has technical support from the United Steelworkers. As noted by’s Patrick Hruby, the athletes would “have to be treated as school employees and granted the same workplace rights and protections as everyone else, a death blow to the NCAA’s current amateur system.”

The NCAA sounded off against the idea of unionized student-athletes in response to the actions taken by Huma and the Northwestern players.

“This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education,” said Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal officer, in a statement. “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. ... We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.”

As of now, the CAPA’s goals largely align with the NCPA’s: better concussion and other medical care, full-cost-of-attendance scholarships, and multi-year scholarships guaranteed for student-athletes who suffer career-ending injuries.

However, as Yahoo! Sports’ Pat Forde noted, the union could eventually pursue payment for collegiate athletes:

But if this union becomes real and the movement makes progress, it stands to reason that CAPA would next take dead aim at the huge (and ever-growing) profits being made by college athletics' biggest programs. With the College Football Playoff launching in the fall, the sport will be awash in record amounts of revenue—and the players will want part of it."

This process will not be resolved overnight, to say the least. In fact, it could take years before reaching a resolution. According to’s Munson, the players will first make their pitch to a hearing officer of the NLRB in Chicago, and can appeal to the NLRB in Washington if they lose in Chicago. If they also lose in Washington, they’d be allowed to appeal to a U.S. Court of Appeals.

It’s something that bears watching by any potential collegiate athlete, however, given the high stakes for those involved. If the NLRB does allow collegiate athletes to become unionized, it will necessitate substantial reforms from the NCAA.

Could high school athletes eventually pursue a similar route? It’s even more doubtful. By virtue of the significant revenue they generate for their schools, collegiate athletes have a much more substantial argument than do high school athletes. If high school sports one day grows as lucrative as college sports, however, the NLRB’s decision could have far-reaching ramifications for all high school athletes, not just those interested in pursuing their athletic careers past high school.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.