NW union reps off to Congress

Updated: March 31, 2014, 11:42 AM ET
By Tom Farrey | ESPN.com

The leaders who are attempting to unionize Northwestern football players will take their case to Capitol Hill lawmakers, aiming to protect the historic victory union organizers achieved last week.

Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, told "Outside the Lines" that he and Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback, will be in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and Thursday for informational briefings with an undisclosed set of legislators.

"We want them to understand why we're doing what we're doing," Huma said. "Obviously, Congress has the power to affect conditions for college athletes as well, and we want to correct some of the false statements that have been made about what we're trying to do."

The closed-door meetings will follow mixed reaction among key politicians to last week's decision by the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board that football players at Northwestern qualify as employees under the definition established by federal labor law.

Strong support came from Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose son played soccer at the University of Virginia. He told The Washington Post, "Of course they should be able to organize. The way these people are treated by the NCAA and the universities themselves is really unpardonable, and I wish them well. I'll do anything I can to help."

Far less enthused was Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. Department of Education secretary and former president of the University of Tennessee.

"Imagine a university's basketball players striking before a Sweet 16 game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food and no classes before 11 a.m.," he said. "This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it."

For now, the matter squarely rests with the NLRB, which has ordered an election among all Northwestern scholarship football players with remaining NCAA eligibility. On April 2, the university must file a list of eligible voters. By April 9, it must file a "request for review" by the five-member NLRB board based in Washington. The university already has stated it will appeal the decision.

From there, the regional director for the NLRB in Chicago, Peter Sung Ohr, will have a couple of procedural options, both of which could shape the ultimate outcome. He can move ahead as normal with scheduling the election, within a five-day window at the end of April. If that happens, the votes likely would be impounded and not opened until any appeal by Northwestern works its way through the courts, which could take months or perhaps years.

By that time, more of the players who signed union cards in January will have moved on from the team. Already, Colter and the other seniors whose final season was last fall are ineligible to vote in the election, based on Ohr's decision limiting eligibility to those who still can play. Should the appeals process extend beyond the 2014 season, another class could be eliminated, if, at the time votes are opened, the NLRB decides to count only the ballots of current players.

So, one option before Ohr is to postpone the election until the appeals process concludes -- though that would be an atypical move; most elections move ahead despite employer objections.

"We definitely would like to hold the election as soon as possible," Huma said. "Hopefully, there will be no delay."

Huma said he is confident that no matter which course Ohr takes, players will vote to unionize under CAPA. He and Colter have said an "overwhelming majority" of players signed the union cards, and last week Colter, still a student at Northwestern, said support for unionization remains strong among his teammates.

The national NLRB board is seen by many legal analysts as unlikely to overturn Ohr's 24-page report, which sided with the players, citing the 40- to 50-hour commitment that players are expected to put into their football training, the special rules that apply to them compared to non-athletes, and their role in supporting a highly commercialized entertainment product. Northwestern football generated $235 million in revenues between 2003 and 2012, leaving a $76 million surplus after expenses.

CAPA draws its platform from the National College Players Association, of which Huma is also president. The stated goals of the NCPA are health and safety protections such as guarantees of medical coverage for injuries, minimizing college athletes' brain trauma risks, and raising the amount of money that athletic scholarships provide.

Ohr's ruling immediately prompted an NCAA statement objecting to the NLRB's decision. Since then, the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors has taken the same position, as well as the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which promotes an education-first agenda. On the other side, the Drake Group, another academics-focused reform group, issued a statement of support for the unionization of college athletes.

The American public appears split on the question. In the days before Ohr's decision, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 47 percent of Americans supported the idea of a union for college athletes, and 47 percent opposed. The strongest support was among minorities and people younger than 40, and the least support was among white women. Support was also stronger among Democrats and Independents than Republicans.

Ohr's decision opens the door for football and men's basketball teams at 16 other private universities in FBS conferences to request that a union represent them, as the National Labor Relations Act governs private businesses nationally. Any move to create athlete unions at public universities would have to be pursued through state labor laws, which vary widely.

Huma declined to say if CAPA is talking with teams at other universities about unionizing.

"We're not going to comment," he said. "If it happens, people will learn about it after the fact."

Tom Farrey | email

Writer, Reporter

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