As Northwestern University’s football players attempt to unionize, their leaders came to Capitol Hill this week to lobby for the effort and to protect their interests in advance of potential legislative battles.
Kain Colter, Northwestern’s starting quarterback last season, and Ramogi Huma, president of the group that represents the players, are seeking protections such as better oversight of player head injuries, fully guaranteed scholarships and comprehensive medical coverage. In a landmark decision, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board granted Northwestern football players employee status in March, opening up the possibility of unionizing.
As unionized employees, Northwestern football players could ask to collectively bargain for workplace protections. Though some in college athletics argue the Northwestern union could be a precursor to paying college athletes who compete in revenue sports, Huma and Colter say the union will not push for compensation above and beyond full scholarships.
“We want to raise awareness, raise support and answer some questions,” Huma said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re not advocating for salaries. We want coverage for injured players, concussion reform and those types of basic protections.”
Colter and Huma came to Washington to speak about the development of a college players’ union to the policymakers that one day could decide its fate. Colter, who has completed his eligibility and is scheduled to graduate in June, said he wants to ensure that future players enjoy protections he never had.
“We’re not doing this for ourselves. We’re doing this for future generations,” Colter said Thursday, adding that if the parents of children who dream of one day playing college football “know their son will be protected from a serious head injury, that will be what we want.”
Colter has thrust Northwestern — a private Big Ten school in Evanston, Ill., known more for its academic successes than its football prowess — into the center of the debate over college athletes’ rights.
About a year ago, Colter reached out to Huma, who started a student advocacy group in 1997 when he was a linebacker on UCLA’s football team. Huma, now president of the union billed as the College Athletes Players Association, considered unionizing a last resort.
“We’ve been fighting for athletes’ rights since 2001,” Huma said. “We’ve tried everything. . . . The NCAA and its lobbyists fought us every step of the way. Earlier petitions asking for these same protections fell on deaf ears. We’ve asked for meetings with conference commissioners and presidents, but we were met with closed doors. That was the first point I thought college athletes needed a union.”
The players’ victory in the Chicago NLRB decision is expected to be reviewed by the NLRB in Washington. In the event the NCAA or Northwestern lobbies for legislation that would block college athletes from unionizing, Colter and Huma wanted to present their side in Washington.
Huma and Colter spoke with lawmakers including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) on Wednesday before meeting with reporters at the Aspen Institute on Thursday.
“I thought he was very articulate,” Miller said of Colter. “He was right on top of the subject. [The union] is a very positive development. They’ve developed a very important list of concerns.”
Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) said he supports the union.
“It may be an uphill battle in Congress. I hope I’m wrong,” Cardenas said. “I’m more than happy to make sure college athletes’ rights are respected and they’re not just people we watch on the big screen.”
The NCAA has not been particularly vocal on the union issue, saying after the Chicago ruling that it opposes the idea that student-athletes are employees and that they play sports for the love of the game. But college athletics’ governing body has its own influence with Congress and has fought legislative battles with Huma for many years.
Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage said the school might send representatives to Washington to lobby for its interests. In addition to seeking a review of the Chicago NLRB’s affirmation of a union, the university is willing to take the case to federal court. The school has argued that playing football is part of the students’ academic experience and does not make them employees of the university.
Colter’s involvement in the unionization effort has caused some friction between the Northwestern student body and the school he represented on the field, though he believes it will be worth it in the end.
“It’s been a rocky road. I can honestly say there’ve been some bridges burned,” Colter said. “Time heals all wounds. We’ll see what comes about. Deep down in my heart I know we’re doing the right thing.”