EVANSTON, Ill. -With virtually unanimous player support, and with Steelworker backing, football players at Northwestern University filed a formal petition and signed union recognition election cards with the National Labor Relations Board's Chicago regional office on Jan. 28.
If the players win the vote - which will occur only after NLRB hearings and rulings and possible appeals to the courts, they admitted - they would set a national precedent for recognizing college athletes, in football and men's basketball at Division I schools, as "employees" under labor law and eligible to be organized.
The new College Athletic Players Association contends that scholarships actually pay for the players' services, and the players in turn earn their colleges millions of dollars. But labor law now does not cover the players, Northwestern player Kain Colter and CAPA leader Ramogi Huma told a telephone press conference.
The organizing drive grew out of contacts college players at UCLA had with the Steelworkers more than a decade ago, both the players and Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said. The union backs a non-profit group to publicize the players' plight and agitate for public pressure on colleges to change their ways. The colleges didn't listen.
So the organizing drive started, and picked up steam when leaders of the National Collegiate Athletic Association - the organization representing colleges - recently said colleges "have no legal responsibility" for taking care of players who are injured, Huma said.
That lack of responsibility and questions about college responsibility for injured players, especially football players who suffer permanent brain damage through on-field concussions, drove the organizing drive.
"We thought they had a good deal," Gerard said of college football players when the UCLA contacts began. "But we heard story after story of them struggling to pay for basics like food and rent, or how they got cut off" of scholarships "by a coach's whim."
The Northwestern players were very enthusiastic, as "they've been taught to think outside the box," Colter said. Their head coach told him "If this is what the team feels, and there's a right way, then let it play out."
Huma said the players want to unionize so they "can have a seat at the table" on issues such as injury coverage, adequacy of their scholarships, post-injury care and establishment of an educational trust fund for players to let them finish college and graduate even after their athletic eligibility, and their scholarships expire.