Northwestern AD: Athletes need voting role

May, 13, 2014
May 13
3:30
PM CT

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- College athletes' welfare is top of mind for athletic directors across the country, and one Big Ten school remains at the center of the debate about whether players are receiving enough for what they provide between the lines.

"Everybody's curious," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said.

Phillips on Tuesday addressed the unionization effort by the Wildcats football team in depth for the first time since it launched in January. During a break at the Big Ten ADs meetings, he outlined why he opposes a union but also praised the Northwestern players for raising issues that need to be addressed in a collegiate model that has been too resistant to change.

He's proud of the issues players have raised and not upset by the attention brought on Northwestern's program.

"I know [unionization] is not the right mechanism for change nationally, but areas of welfare and health and safety, those are the right things for us to be talking about," Phillips said. "There are some real positive residuals that have occurred from the conversation about unionization."

Phillips thinks players deserve not only a voice, but voting power on major issues that affect them. Players had been consulted in an advisory role in the past, but it's not enough.

"No one is living the experience like they are," he said. "We can do that in a way that makes sense, and it's necessary. I'm excited about it, and you're going to see some of the movement, like the unlimited meals. You're going to see some things on cost of attendance that we have to get our arms around.

"We have to make sure we're providing the necessary resources."

Northwestern is awaiting a decision on its appeal of the decision by the Chicago regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that its football players are employees of the school. Players voted April 25 on whether to form a union, but the ballots have been sealed and not counted, pending the outcome of the appeal.

Phillips opposes a union for several reasons:
  • College sports are not the minor leagues, and the college model doesn't include an employee-employer relationship. Phillips noted that more than 98 percent of all college athletes don't go on to play professionally.
  • Third parties shouldn't come between players and their coaches/administrators.
  • It would hurt the accessibility and affordability of higher education.

"Accessibility and affordability are the two things college athletics has provided for a number of years," Phillips said. "It's given a population in our world, certainly in our country, the opportunity to use sport to access great education."

But what about all the money major-conference schools are generating, and the even bigger projected revenues in the near future? Phillips pointed to the low percentage of athletic departments that operate in the black.

"If we want to ignore broad-based programming and we want to ignore equality and doing things equitable, you're going to get a completely different collegiate model," he said. "I'm not in favor of that. Maybe some people are.

"Are there more things we can and should be thinking about for our student-athletes? Yes. But it needs to be done in a way that really is prudent and equitable and doesn't just pay attention to one sport."

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