As College Football Union Push Goes Political, Road Gets Tougher for Athletes

Ben KerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterApril 8, 2014

From left, former Northwestern University football quarterback Kain Colter, Ramogi Huma, founder and President of the National College Players Association and Tim Waters, Political Director for United Steelworkers, arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April, 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Lauren Victoria Burke

Northwestern football players made a unionization push because they didn't feel anyone—not the school, not the NCAA—had their backs. As athlete compensation and player safety/health have become front-burner issues, little has been done to change things for the better. 

As the unionizing effort moves forward—players are scheduled to vote on authorizing a union on April 25, according to the Associated Press—resistance will grow. Northwestern will appeal the National Labor Relations Board's decision, which could be the first of many appeals for the university. 

Even entities not yet affected by the unionization push are firing back. Jeremy Pelzer of reports that Ohio legislators proposed an amendment to the state’s budget review, submitted Monday, that would prevent student-athletes at state universities from being considered employees. 

Sara Ganim of CNN tweeted the proposal Tuesday morning. 

“I think this is a statement of what we all thought was obvious, and that is athletes are not employees of their university," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Amstutz to  

A final committee vote for the bill is expected to come Tuesday. Like other bills, it would then have to be passed through the House before being considered by the Senate.

The NLRB ruled last month that that student-athletes at Northwestern were really university employees based on services provided for compensation (a grant-in-aid). However, that only applied to scholarship athletes in private universities under the NLRB's jurisdiction.

Kain Colter
Kain ColterPaul Beaty

Conversely, it did not apply to scholarship athletes at public universities who would fall under state labor laws. Adding to the disjointed nature of the movement is that "right-to-work" states make up roughly half of the country. As B/R special contributor Kristi Dosh wrote late last month, right-to-work states "either prohibit or limit the ability of public employees to collectively bargain, so student-athletes in those states would have a much more difficult battle."

Since Ohio is not a right-to-work state, legislators took matters into their own hands. Potentially affected by the bill are athletes at several Division I programs in the state of Ohio, including Ohio State. 

Even if the bill never sees the light of day, it's a sign of what athletes have to face in the unionization push. As NCAA guru and contributor John Infante previously tweeted, Congress may eventually have to get involved if athlete unionization ever got enough momentum to be a national movement. 

The question, of course, is whether it ever gains that momentum. 

Unionizing in college athletics is a bold and unprecedented move that takes a lot of guts. There's no doubt the status quo has to change and the NCAA membership has sat on its hands for too long. So athletes began doing things for themselves. 

Will unionizing be the event that forces serious change? Perhaps, but there are a number of people trying to ensure that it doesn't. 

That's not going to end anytime soon, meaning athletes will likely have to go to the highest level of government to ask for it. 


Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.