Supporters of establishing a football players union at Northwestern University came to Washington Wednesday to meet with members of Congress, explaining their effort to ultimately win more rights for the student athletes.
“Being able to get important, powerful people in your corner believing in your cause is huge,” said Kain Colter, a former Northwestern quarterback who took part in the meetings. “We’re not trying to sway anybody. It’s really about presenting the facts and to clear the air, straight from the source.”
Colter announced in late January that most of the current football players at Northwestern had signed cards petitioning for a union. After a five-day hearing in late February, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board affirmed the players’ position that they were employees of the university. The school outside of Chicago is in the Big Ten conference, which the University of Maryland will join next season.
Huma, president of the union billed as the College Athletes Players Association, has championed college athletes’ rights since 1997, when he started a student advocacy group at UCLA, where he was a linebacker on the football team. Since then, he has led the National College Players Association, in search of protections for college athletes. Colter reached out to Huma about a year ago with the idea of unionizing, a last-resort option for Huma.
“We’ve been fighting for athletes’ rights since 2001,” Huma said in an interview. “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 commisioners and presidents, but we were met with closed doors,” he added. “That was the first point I thought college athletes needed a union.”
At the Capitol, Huma and Colter spoke with Democratic lawmakers including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, and Rep. George Miller of California. The organizers did not describe the gatherings.
Northwestern, not known as a football factory, became the center of the nascent union movement due to Colter. After learning about unions and experiencing life as a college athlete, he reached out to Huma.
The players’ victory in the Chicago NLRB decision is expected to be reviewed by the NLRB board in Washington. Wednesday’s meetings, the first of two days of gatherings, were not directly related to the case.
“We want to raise awareness, raise support and answer some questions,” Huma said. “We’re not advocating for salaries. We want coverage for injured players, concussion reform and those types of basic protections.”
The NCAA hasn’t been as vocal as CAPA on the union issue, but college athletics’ governing body could push for legislation to exclude college athletes from being considered employees. Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage said the school might also send representatives to meet with members of Congress, in an effort to stop the union effort. In addition to seeking an appeal of the Chicago NLRB’s affirmation of a union, the university plans to take the case to federal court if necessary.
The Northwestern football players are expected to vote April 25 whether to join the union effort.
“It’s a historic day, that athletes will even be given a chance to vote on a union,” said Tim Waters, political director of the United Steelworkers’ Union, who was at the meetings Wednesday. “They’ve never had that chance before.”