Northwestern Players' Efforts to Unionize Natural Next Step for College Athletes

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterJanuary 28, 2014

LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 2: Quarterback Kain Colter #2 of the Northwestern Wildcats follows wide receiver Cameron Dickerson #19 of the Northwestern Wildcats during their game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium on November 2, 2013 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Northwestern's most explosive offensive player from a season ago, Kain Colter, is leading the way for what looks to be the next, and possibly biggest, step in collegiate athletes gaining a voice in the system.

Aided by Ramogi Huma, the creator of the National College Players Association (NCPA), Colter's push is to create a union that would speak for the best interest of collegiate players. A push that is a step in the bigger process of gaining a voice.

As Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel details, the NFL draft hopeful and the majority of his teammates have filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board. This petition for unionization is the first step in what will likely be a lengthy legal process as the players fight for a say in the sport.

That is Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reporting how Kain Colter heads off the "this is just about the money" critics of the proposal at the pass. The proposed College Athletes Players Association, CAPA, has its roots in generating a voice for athletes as means of advocating against "unjust NCAA rules that create physical, academic, and financial hardships for college athletes across the nation," as noted in the release posted by Rohan Nadkarni.

This is not about pay for play. This is not even about Northwestern. It is about conditions, nationally, that are unfavorable to the athletes. The big highlight, of course, is the medical element, as players put themselves in harm's way and risk long-term injury. With the NCAA embroiled in a concussion lawsuit, and brain trauma safety at the forefront of many players' minds, this is one of the critical issues that led to the progression.

While concussions are a big concern with respect to medical treatment, they are not the only issue—as Colter pointed out, while praising Northwestern. His praise of Northwestern and the willingness of his teammates to join in this cause speak to the unique nature of the Big Ten school.

The movement had to start somewhere like Northwestern; the private school that views its players as more than pieces in a greater gridiron cash-making puzzle. This push, something that Huma has been discussing for quite some time, had to come from players who had the freedom to speak out.

Colter, and his teammates, have the respect of their school and their coach. The same cannot always be said for Big State University, where players fear the consequences of stepping out of line, and schools discourage the rocking of the boat. 

Although the All Players United movement drew attention nationally, there was not nearly the traction to generate impact. Small, isolated groups do not a movement make. Rather, blocks showing that it can be done, inspiring other blocks in the same boat to make the move is what will lead to change. Or, in this case, lead to the court case that leads to change.

It will not come without a fight, as the NCAA has already responded to the union proposal with a press release:

This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.
Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.
Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.

It's a strong statement that certainly will resonate with some folks. However, the section that notes an education is "the purpose of college" speaks directly to another of the proposed-CAPA's issues. This is not about professionalizing the game, as the NCAA quickly retorted, it is about making sure players have a voice and get to speak on issues.

They have to, since the NCAA refuses to speak to the issue of the value of education. When a scholarship is the "payment" for playing the sport, it stands to reason that the education should be of equal value. When players are shuttled into bad majors, denied real tutoring in favor of given answers (to keep guys eligible), and time limits on practices are loose guidelines skirted routinely, the value of that scholarship is diminished.

Certainly, many will blame the players for not trying hard enough while pointing out the exceptions that populate the collegiate landscape. Yet, when blocking, tackling, running or the ability to throw the ball is what landed a kid on campus, maintaining that place is what drives many ships.

Especially when the scholarships are still far from guaranteed.

The term "student-athlete" was coined by the NCAA to avoid labor laws and having to pay worker's compensation. The CAPA movement is challenging that word—and more importantly, the definition of that word—by raising the issue. John Infante, of, points out that this road will likely be long and arduous.

But, for Colter and the rest of the student-athletes, it is a road worth traveling.