5 Things You Need to Know About College Football Players' Attempt to Unionize

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2014

5 Things You Need to Know About College Football Players' Attempt to Unionize

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    On Tuesday afternoon, a group of Northwestern football players filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in hopes of being represented by a union for the first time in the history of college athletics.

    According to ESPN's Outside the Lines:

    Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition in Chicago on behalf of football players at Northwestern University, submitting the form at the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

    Backed by the United Steelworkers union, Huma also filed union cards signed by an undisclosed number of Northwestern players with the NLRB—the federal statutory body that recognizes groups that seek collective bargaining rights.

    The move is unprecedented and the first step in a long process toward being recognized as employees of the university. It runs against the concept of "amateurism" that the NCAA has continued to champion over the years, despite vocal protests to abandon it in favor of a compensatory system of some sort.

    This is a big step in the direction of NCAA reform, but there is still a long ways to go, especially after it released a statement opposing the petition.

    Here are some important things to know about Tuesday's milestone event.

Key Figures

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    Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is the man who got the ball rolling, even though he expended his collegiate eligibility in 2013 and is preparing for the NFL draft.

    According to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports, Colter was forced to confront the inequity of college sports during a class called "Modern Workplace" at Northwestern:

    As Kain Colter prepared for his third season as Northwestern's starting quarterback last summer, he took a class at the Evanston, Ill., school called "Modern Workplace."

    In it, he studied unions across history, including the current ones involved in professional sports. That's when the instructor noted, according to Colter, "I can't believe that student-athletes do not have a players union."

    The line hit Colter hard.

    Colter then reached out to a man named Ramogi Huma, who played linebacker for UCLA in the mid-1990s and now leads a young advocacy group called the National College Players Association (NCPA). Colter learned of Huma during research for "Modern Workplace" and decided the time was right to make a call.

    The NCPA is backed by United Steelworkers (USW), which is led by President Leo Gerard, who was in Chicago on Tuesday to assist in the process. USW has a team of experienced lawyers that will be instrumental in helping this case proceed through the legal system. According to its website, the union has over 1.2 million active and retired members.

    If certified by the NLRB, the formal organization that will represent the players will be called the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Its founders are Huma, Colter and Luke Bonner—a former college basketball player at UMass and the brother of NBA player Matt Bonner.

    Those are the central figures in this story. They are the ones you will see standing on the soapbox, whose voices you are guaranteed to hear. But also key are the other, nameless Northwestern players who decided to sign union cards.

    According to the ESPN report, the NLRB cannot consider a petition unionized unless 30 percent of the group's members sign a card. To get there, at least 26 of Northwestern's 85 scholarship players had to have taken a stand and signed.

    Huma wouldn't disclose the exact number of signees, but he did call it an "overwhelming majority."

It's Not Necessarily About Pay-for-Play

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    The stimulus for most recent NCAA reform discussions has been pay-for-play—the belief that college athletes should be compensated for all the money they bring in through ticket sales, merchandising and television contracts.

    But that's not necessarily what this is about. At a fundamental level, Colter and Huma want the players to have a chance to state their case on important governance issues rather than being blindly subjected to the NCAA's will. It's not dissimilar to the concept of "no taxation without representation," on which this country was founded.

    "A lot of people will think this is all about money; it’s not," said Colter, according to Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. "We’re asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard."

    Colter then went even further, per Wetzel, saying:

    Money is far from priority No. 1 on our list of goals. The health of the players is No. 1. Right now the NCAA does not require or guarantee that any university or institution covers any sports-related medical expenses. Student-athletes should never have to worry about if their sports-related medical bills are taken care of.

    Still, while pay-for-play is not necessarily the impetus of this petition, it is also on the table for reform. According to the ESPN report, Huma did not rule out the possibility of seeking compensation in the future, though he made sure to state that it is not part of his initial goals.

This Was a Long Time Coming

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    The steps taken on Tuesday are big, but they aren't necessarily surprising.

    Labor dispute was a thematic underpinning of the entire 2013 season, manifesting itself on Sept. 21 when players from Northwestern, Georgia Tech and Georgia wore wristbands that read "APU," which stands for "All Players United." According to the NCPA, it was part of an unannounced protest.

    Colter was one of those players, along with nine of his teammates in the game against Maine. It was clear on that day that things were coming to a head in 2013, but the seedlings of this movement actually stretch back much farther. 

    Consider, for example, the rumored UNLV boycott of the Men's Basketball Final Four in 1991. The 'Rebels were the biggest team in the country, but there were murmurs that they planned some sort of public protest against the NCAA—on its grandest stage, no less.

    It never quite materialized, but speaking with Patrick Hruby of Sports on Earth last April, former UNLV guard H Waldman didn't exactly deny what his team had discussed:

    Well, we had some black uniforms made up for the championship game. Nobody had ever worn that. Now, I'm getting old, but I'm pretty sure [the uniforms] were going to be our protest.

    We were always ready to protest something that year...It would have made a statement.

    Now, more than 20 years later, Colter and Huma have made an even bigger statement and filed for something that generations of college athletes have quietly sought.

    This isn't an isolated incident; it's the inevitable denouement.

This Is Just the First Step of a Process

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    Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

    Now that Colter and his teammates have officially sent their petition to the NLRB, the ball can get rolling on a long, arduous process. Don't expect an immediate resolution on this issue.

    According to the ESPN report, the procedure could take years—plural. The next step, however, is on the part of the regional board of the NLRB, which will consider the request the players and Huma filed.

    If turned down, that decision can be appealed to the NLRB's national board.

    The NCAA has already released a statement opposing the petition, and Northwestern University is expected to share its stance. Since the players are filing to be represented as employees of the university—something that neither body recognizes them as, per the foundational code of amateurism—they fall squarely on the opposite side of this movement.

    Still, Colter wants to make it clear that he does not hold anything against his school or his head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, whom he said understands why he's doing this, per Greenstein:

    I loved attending Northwestern. It taught me how to be a great leader and thinker. I hope (coaches and officials) will be proud and agree with me. Coach Fitzgerald said he is supportive of anything that makes the student-athlete experience better.

    Gerard said he wouldn't be surprised to see the case end up in federal court.

Current Case Is Only for Private Schools

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    The filing of this petition was indeed just the start of a process. 

    But even if the union at Northwestern ends up being fully recognized at the end of this process, that recognition itself would just be the start of another process.


    Per the ESPN report, the ruling on this matter would only apply to private institutions like Northwestern—though it would apply to all of them, according to Gerard, who said that "based on labor law, any decision in favor of the players against Northwestern would apply to all private universities across the country in the FBS."

    Public schools would still be left in the dark, however, because the NLRA only governs private enterprises and not state institutions. In order to be granted similar rights, public schools "would still have to take the case to their individual state boards," per Wetzel.

    As a further restriction, only FBS football players would be immediately eligible to join CAPA, since they can make the best case to be treated as employees. Huma did say, however, that the body may eventually expand its breadth and consider adding other sports.