Northwestern University football union hearings begin

February 12, 2014

WBEZ/Katie O’Brien
Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter announced plans to form the first labor union for college athletes. The National Labor Relations Board must first determine if the players can be considered employees.

The National Labor Relations Board in Chicago held the first in a series of hearings Wednesday to consider whether college football players qualify as employees. Players from Northwestern University filed a union election petition with the board last month. If approved--and later elected to represent the interests of the team’s scholarship players--the College Athletes Players Association would be the first labor union of its kind.

Unlike their professional counterparts, college athletes don’t have contracts--they can’t negotiate the terms of their tenure. And athletic scholarships are regulated by the NCAA. Studies show that athletes often spend up to 40 hours a week on their sport; they travel for their sport. Oftentimes, players are told when and where to be and what to eat. But Northwestern says it’s all part of the overall academic experience.

University officials contend that students who participate in NCAA Division I sports, including those who receive athletic scholarships, are students, first and foremost.

Bob, Rowley, director of media relations for the university, spoke to reporters after Wednesday’s brief preliminary hearing. He said scholarships are intended to provide for a student’s educational experience, even if they’re athletic. CAPA attorneys saw things differently.

Revenue generated by Division I FBS and men’s basketball is estimated to be in the billions. CAPA said it is focused on those players because they believe they can make the case that the scholarships are, in essence, compensation.

”If they don’t play football, they don’t receive the aid...the idea that somehow this is a gift to them, is untrue...if you don’t play football, you don’t get the scholarship,” CAPA attorney John Adam explained.

Northwestern maintained that the university does not regard, and has never regarded, its football program as a commercial enterprise.

The key question went unanswered--but it will no doubt be taken up, picked apart and rehashed over three days of testimony before the board next week.

Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @katieobez