It is not often that the athletic program from Northwestern makes headlines, considering Northwestern is better known for their academics. But when it was announced that former Wildcat quarterback Kain Colter (2010-2013) was petitioning to form a union it caused shockwaves not only across the Northwestern campus but it also caused a stir amongst college athletics and caught the attention of the national media.
There has been debate on whether or not we should pay college athletes considering the amount of money the revenue sports (football and men’s basketball) bring into their respective school. But no college athlete has ever mentioned the possibility of unionizing.
In order to file for a union, Colter only needed 30 percent of the 85 scholarship players (25.5 players) at Northwestern to sign union cards (The Daily Northwestern, Rohan Nadkarni and Alex Putterman). With signatures in hand from his teammates, Colter was able to make his decision public that he was forming a union during a news conference in Chicago on January 28.
“We Northwestern football players are grateful for our opportunity to play football for a prestigious university and athletic program,” the team’s January statement said. “However, just as other athletes who compete in multibillion dollar industries have done, we must secure and maintain comprehensive protections, but asserting the rights afforded to us under labor laws.” (The Daily Northwestern, Putterman)
Formal proceedings began on February 12 as both Colter and Northwestern made their case on whether or not the players for Northwestern have the right to unionize. John Adam the attorney for the College Athletes Player Association defined what employee means when the hearings began. Adams went on to say, that the players for Northwestern fits the definition of an employee. While the lawyers from Northwestern defined the football players at best are temporary employees (The Daily Northwestern, Nadkarni).
Over a two-week period, Colter and Northwestern made their arguments. But it wasn’t until March 26 when the first step was taken in favor of Colter when the Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor that the players have the right to form a union, ruling that the scholarship athletes are employees of Northwestern University and have the right to unionize (The Equinox, Skyler Frazer).
Ohr cited the number of hours the football players put in over a year, whether it’s spring football, fall football camp, or the season itself, and that is why they should be considered employees of Northwestern. Ohr also added in his ruling that the scholarships are directly tied to how the athlete performs on the field (ESPN, Brian Bennett). Scholarships are renewed on a yearly basis and if a player is hurt or isn’t performing to expectations when they signed the national letter of intent, the scholarship can be pulled and be given to someone else (ESPN, Bennett).
Outside of the Northwestern football players devoting between 40-and-50 hours a week during football season, Ohr also said, you need to consider the schoolwork and classes they attend (The Equinox, Frazer). Part of the reason Colter took the necessary steps in order to form a union was because of the responsibilities he had to fulfill for the Northwestern football team (Chicago Tribune, Alejandra Cancino and Teddy Greenstein). With all of his time commitments to the Wildcats, Colter stated during the February 18 hearing that it prevented him from fulfilling his dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
“Due to the time demands you can’t ever reach your academic potential,” Colter said during the second day of the National Labor Relations Board hearing. “Football makes it hard for you to succeed (academically). You have to sacrifice one, and we’re not allowed to sacrifice football. We’re brought to the university to play football.” (The Daily Northwestern, Putterman)
During the hearing in front of the National Labor Relations Board, Colter stated that he tried to apply for medical school at Northwestern but with all the requirements it was a challenge for him to find time to do it (Chicago Tribune, Cancino and Greenstein). With him not being able to apply for medical school he changed his major to psychology in which he said was a less challenging major (Chicago Tribune, Cancino and Greenstein).
Although college athletics has never seen a case like this before in terms of players wanting to unionize, Ohr did have a prior case to go off of as a guideline. A prior ruling disallowed Brown University graduate student teaching assistants to form a union in 2004 due to the academic nature of their work. Ohr viewed the Northwestern case differently from the Brown case because he viewed the coaches not to be professors and as players you don’t get any course credit for sweating during practice. (TIME Magazine, Sean Gregory)
Northwestern as expected appealed the decision of the National Labor Relations Board but experts believe that the ruling will stand.
“I think the regional director’s decision is a sound one,” said William Gould, a Stanford law professor who chaired the National Labor Relations Board from 1994 to 1998. “I expect the board in Washington D.C. to uphold it.” (TIME Magazine, Gregory)
When Ohr made his ruling in favor of Colter he also ordered that the Northwestern football players hold an election on whether or not they want to unionize as a team. The election took place on April 25 and there were 76 players eligible to vote. The vote wasn’t mandatory but a majority was needed in order to certify the union (The New York Times, Ben Strauss).
If the National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. upholds the ruling, the scholarship football players will be considered employees regardless of how the votes turn out. If the National Labor Relations Board overturns Ohr’s decision then the ballots will not be counted (The New York Times, Strauss). The decision has yet to be made and isn’t expected to be made anytime soon.
If Colter wins his argument it will allow the College Athletes Player Association to improve medical benefits for players during and after their college careers, more attention on athletes’ graduation rates, and scholarships that cover what Ramogi Huma, the President of the College Athletes Player Association says is the true cost of college (The Daily Northwestern, Putterman and Nadkarni).
Not only would it change the athletic culture at Northwestern but also it will ultimately have an effect on public universities and how they conduct their athletic program. The reason is if the union passes it will help cover a chronic injury, that may have occurred on the football field that effects the person’s ability to live, post college.
It would be likely that other athletes from private schools would follow Northwestern’s lead in forming a union. There are a total of 128 schools in Division I or also known as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), 17 of those schools are private. The reason private schools have the right to unionize over public schools is because public schools are governed by state labor laws, which would prevent them from forming a union (The Daily Northwestern, Putterman).
As a scholarship athlete your tuition is paid for each year, books, dormitory halls, meals, unlimited snacks, tutors, and access to athletic trainers while you are on scholarship, just to name a few. Clearly, you get a lot paid for and a lot is covered compared to regular students, while you’re in school, which is the main argument that your scholarship to play football is your compensation.
During hearings in February, university director of financial aid Carolyn Lindley was called to the stand and during Lindley’s testimony it was revealed that $15 million of the $139 million, Northwestern provides in aid goes to athletes, and those grants cover the full $63,000 cost of attending school during the 2013/2014 academic school year (The Daily Northwestern, Nadkarni).
Knowing what a scholarship covers for athletes, it is understandable why the university doesn’t want the players to unionize because they are given so much already. When Colter decided to unionize the university and current head football coach Pat Fitzgerald felt like it was a slap in the face.
The reason, when Colter was being recruited by Fitzgerald he tried to sell Colter on why Northwestern was the school for him to attend and how he could benefit by being a student along with how he can continue to help build the Northwestern football program. But when Colter and his teammates signed the union cards to form a union it went against everything that Colter and his teammates initially bought into when they signed their respective national letter of intents.
“One thing that stood out in the process is when Fitzgerald was recruiting these players he was selling the football program and what the school stood for,” Chris Emma the publisher of the Wildcat Digest said. “But when Kain Colter decided to unionize it completely went against what coach Fitzgerald sold them during the recruiting process. So it was a slap in the face and pretty much said that Colter didn’t appreciate what Northwestern did for him during his collegiate career. Fitzgerald recruits players that will buy in and when Colter wanted to unionize it kind of went against Northwestern and what the football coaches were saying.”
But when you look at what the NCAA and schools are making off of the athletes, it is easy to argue that even what their scholarship is worth doesn’t match with what they are helping bring into the school. When you have a player on your football team that is a preseason Heisman finalist or a future NFL first round draft pick on your team it creates buzz not only on your campus but also amongst the media. That respective athlete brings attention to your school and can help lure high school seniors to want to play for your university. The university can make money off of the star player by selling the players jersey. They also have the ability to raise ticket prices because they know fans will be willing to pay the extra money to see such an exciting athlete.
It is easy to point to former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin the third and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel both of which won the Heisman Trophy, and were generating more money than what their tuition would have cost at their respective schools. Griffin and Manziel had to trademark their nicknames, so people couldn’t profit off of them. Thanks to their success and popularity on the football field they were responsible for bringing in large sums of money to their universities, which helped both schools either upgrade or build new football facilities.
With Baylor and Texas A&M profiting off of their star quarterbacks, it is somewhat curious to why Northwestern wouldn’t want a player of that caliber. The Wildcats currently don’t have a player on their football team currently who’s a superstar in the making that the university can advertise off of like Griffin or Manziel.
But if the National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. upholds the ruling it could lead to Northwestern possibly signing an athlete that is transcendent. But even with Northwestern having the potential of upgrading their facilities it doesn’t interest them as they remain anti union.
“The school has been anti union the whole time,” Putterman the sports editor of the Daily Northwestern said. “They don’t see it as an advantage for them even though it might be. I don’t know it’s hard to say whether or not that would be a competitive advantage. I guess it would probably draw some students.”
When Northwestern voted in April the players declined to say how they voted at the time. But as time passed it was slowly revealed how the players voted in April.
“Everything we’ve heard the players voted against the union back in April,” Putterman said. “It wasn’t worth it, they figured it could possibly create tension between the coaches and players.”
“The union would have to operate under NCAA rules so they could potentially get guaranteed scholarships in writing, get better medical benefits, and less practice time,” Putterman added. “A lot of them voted to sign union cards originally but as they learned more they changed their minds about whether or not if they really wanted to form a union. Very few have spoken out in favor of the union.”
According to Putterman senior starting quarterback Trevor Siemian was one of the players who was anti union and he tried to persuade his Wildcat teammates into not voting for the union. But in reality it doesn’t make a difference on how the players voted in April as the National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. will have the final say in what happens.
With the union only covering players who are on scholarship, it prevented walk-ons from being eligible to vote on April 25. But despite walk-ons not being eligible, it is likely that they wouldn’t be in favor of the union in the first place. Michael Odom is at least one former walk on before he left the team, who encouraged his former teammates to vote for the union (The New York Times, Strauss).
“I know a lot of my teammates have been influenced by former players, coaches, and officials at the university,” Odom said at the time of the election. “A lot of them are trying to communicate that by voting for the union, they’d be betraying Northwestern.” (The New York Times, Strauss)
If you start at Northwestern as a walk-on but play well enough you are capable of earning a scholarship at some point in your career if there’s an open one and if the coaches feel like you have earned it. It would be the same way if the Wildcats due unionize a player who starts out as a walk-on can still earn a scholarship in which they receive every benefit a scholarship athlete receives and they also would be covered by the union.
With the possibility of a union forming amongst the football team it is something that recruits from the 2015 class need to be aware of considering it could impact them sometime during their college career. Isaac James from Carmel High School in Indiana is rated a three star athlete according to Scout.com, and is one of Northwestern’s top targets for this year’s recruiting class.
James who committed to Indiana in December has visited Northwestern twice during his recruitment once as an unofficial visitor and another time for an official visit before he made his decision. But prior to James making his commitment to play for Indiana, he wanted to make sure when he went on his visits to Northwestern that he was informed about the union.
“That was a question my mom and I asked,” James said. “They talked about it but it wasn’t really something they consistently brought up. They kind of said it was athletes in general not just football. The coach (Fitzgerald) supported the players who were involved in the situation but when I went on my unofficial it wasn’t something they told me straight up that it was something they were going to do.”
Prior to James committing to Indiana, he told me that the union wouldn’t play that huge of a factor into his decision if he had decided to commit to the Wildcats.
“Not to much, I’m not going to commit to a school to go into the union, because there are a bunch of other reasons such as academic, social, and athletic factors that play in it,” James said. “It’s not something that would concern me too much but I would be well informed about the situation before I go there.”
Although James decided not to play at Northwestern it still and could affect recruiting going forward as high school players see how the union fully plays out at Northwestern. For some high school recruits they may want to simply see how the Northwestern players and coaches handle the union and what it could do to help the players if an injury occurs, which forces them to leave the program.
“It is an unprecedented type of situation, so it is a little bit difficult to project what it would mean for recruiting,” Midwest Football Recruiting Manager for Scout.com Allen Trieu said. “I tend to think that it will not change much. Since the beginning of recruiting, kids have chosen schools to win games and/or be close to home, and get an education. How you recruit kids, how kids interact with coaches, and how coaches discover and evaluate kids continues to change, but the reasons kids choose schools, by and large, do not. My educated guess on this is that it may affect a few isolated kids here and there, but would not have a larger effect.”
Assuming, Colter wins the right to unionize only the football team would be considered employees of the school but no other sports program at Northwestern would, as they would have to go through the same process the football team did.
“The sport of football is growing into something bigger than Northwestern and bigger than college athletics,” Mike McMullan a wrestler for Northwestern said. “The revenue that football generates is one of the biggest reasons why Colter was able to make his case to the National Labor Relations Board. The work Colter and his teammates put in every week turns a profit for Northwestern, much like work at a company leads to growth. If football does fall under college athletics, the implication is that the value of effort in any NCAA sport is no longer based on results, but it is based off of how much profit the sport brings in.”
For McMullan he is aware that if he tried to unionize the wrestling team, he wouldn’t nearly have as much success as Colter did in winning his argument. He also realizes that if he tried it could possibly lead to the termination of the wrestling program at Northwestern.
“The NCAA isn’t generating billions of dollars off of my actions on the mat,” McMullan said. “For the simple reason that people don’t find wrestling exciting and that’s fine but if we as a team decide to go on strike, it would only cause my sport to die faster and could lead to termination of our program.”
McMullan understandably is fine with the fact that wrestling isn’t generating the same kind of money that football does. He realizes that he is honored to continue his wrestling career at a place like Northwestern. According to him the other athletes at Northwestern outside the football team feel the same way he does.
“I’m privileged and we have the unique opportunity to compete at the highest possible level,” McMullan said. “For most of us, this isn’t getting us ready for the next step. This is the final chapter on a lifetime of commitment, sacrifice, and preparation for when it’s all over.”
Not only is it understandable that Northwestern is concerned about a possible union amongst its football players but the NCAA is as well. If Northwestern does win the right then the NCAA wouldn’t be as profitable off of football as it is now. They would have to split some of its revenue in order to cover costs. It also could mean possibly that the NCAA would no longer exist, but more likely it would mean they wouldn’t have as much power when it comes to football then it does now. That would be because the unions would overtake the NCAA and authority over time.
“It would change everything, the NCAA is on it’s way out, I believe, but I believe the union would expedite the process very quickly and it would force a new governing body and it would give players at Northwestern completely new rights and other schools over time,” Emma said.
With Northwestern competing in the Big Ten, the Wildcats get part of their revenue off of the money that is generated by the Big Ten Network. The Big Ten is one of five conferences that is a part of the power five, the other four conferences that complete the power five are the ACC, Big 12, Pac 12, and the SEC conference. These conferences, like the Big Ten have their own television network, which broadcasts different conference games and showcases the different universities on their network. With these conferences having their own network it helps them continue to bring money into their school. But if you are a school like UW-Milwaukee you don’t have that same kind of luxury as schools that are apart of the power five conferences.
If Northwestern does win the right to unionize it would hurt other schools outside of the power five conferences. Wisconsin could survive because they would have the funds to remain competitive but for the smaller schools in Division I, they may have to decide whether or not keep a program.
For a school like Delaware it would have an effect because Delaware competes in Division 1AA or also known as the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), it would force Delaware and other schools to raise prices in order for them to remain competitive and also in order to survive. The FCS can offer scholarships but at times they rely to make money off of road games to play teams from one of the power five conferences. That money they make in playing those games is meant to help them each year in order to help them turn a profit.
“Most of us, the vast majority of us, don’t make money on athletics,” University of Delaware President Patrick Harker said. “We do it, not to make money, but because we think it’s important for the student athlete. And so if unions came in, and our cost increased, we’d have to cut sports and possibly cut all varsity sports in our case, because we just couldn’t afford it anymore.” (Jeremy Hobson, National Public Radio)
Unlike schools from power five conferences the FCS can’t rely on television revenue. There are times where a network like ESPN will broadcast a Delaware football game or another school from the FCS level. But those schools are not receiving any money from appearing on the network.
Harker made it clear how he feels about unions and how it would affect a school like Delaware. As McMullan stated above the reason, Colter was able to make his case to form a union was because the amount of money football brings into Northwestern. At a school like Delaware that isn’t the case and Harker believes that particularly in football we are allowing the athletes garner too much power. That the term student athlete isn’t appropriate because they are more athlete then student when it comes to football. Harker places part of the blame on schools because they don’t do a good enough job of educating athletes on expressing the importance of an education opposed to what they do on the football field.
“What I’m worried about is the students getting an education,” Harker said. “That’s why we’re here…look at the evidence in the NFL. The average tenure in the NFL is three and a half years. You graduate from college, you make the NFL, you’re in your mid-to late 20’s, and you’re done. If you don’t have an education, you’re not going to be successful in your life.” (Hobson, National Public Radio)
As said above a school like Wisconsin would survive even if Northwestern wins the right to unionize. The reason for that is because back in 2013 ESPN did a study on how much each school at the FBS level has in expenses for the program and what the team’s revenue was. The study was not just meant to see what the football programs expenses and revenues were but it also included every varsity sport. Wisconsin ranked second in both revenue at $149 million and expenses $146.7 million (Paula Lavigne, ESPN). There were schools excluded from this study and those schools were the one’s who don’t have a football program.
Although the Badger football team does generate a lot of money for the university, it also shows that fans are going to not only men’s basketball games, but also to men and women’s hockey, volleyball, wrestling, etc. The numbers also reflect any donations that boosters may have given to the Wisconsin athletic department.
But while the athletic department at Wisconsin doesn’t have to raise ticket prices yet because they are doing well financially, they will have to in the future if the National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. upholds the decision made by Ohr.
But how would Wisconsin remain competitive on the football field if the players at Northwestern can unionize?
“They would try and emulate what Northwestern has with the union,” John Veldhuis a staff writer for BadgerBlitz.com said. “Other schools have been trying to find their way as well because Northwestern is a private school. Obviously because Wisconsin is a public school then they wouldn’t be able to unionize but I could see the Badgers and the rest of the public schools in the Big Ten, adjust to what they can do and try and make themselves as attractive as possible next to Northwestern. That could mean guaranteeing a scholarship all four or five years they are in school, regardless of if they are not performing up to standards, or have to miss the season because of an injury.”
If a union does form the publisher of Badger Nation Ben Worgull, knows that it would create a new landscape for college football but like others, he admits it is hard to know how everything would play out.
“It would give the players at Northwestern a lot of power and it would start a new landscape for college football,” Worgull said. “I believe schools like Wisconsin would be fine but I do think there would be some disadvantages for the Badgers. But then again I think it depends on how it all plays out. You really don’t know what the consequences may be with Northwestern and the union. Obviously it would help the players in case of injuries but when it comes to Northwestern, you don’t really know how they may be affected by the union.”
One area where it needs to be reviewed is how would union dues work. They are not cheap and as a college athlete you might not always have the money to cover the cost. But it was unclear whether or not if the union passes if the athletes at Northwestern would have to pay for them.
“There wouldn’t be union dues from what I can gather,” Putterman said. “That was the one of the concerns people had. But, no one has gotten a concrete answer on this subject. If they were employees according to the National Labor Relations Board would their scholarships be deemed payment and would they have to pay taxes then? But whether or not the players have to pay dues, does make a difference.”
Assuming Northwestern wins the right to unionize and how it plays out. Athletes who attend public schools could view that as another type of payment outside of the scholarship that they are already receiving. Colter has made it clear that he is not looking to get college athletes paid but that scholarship athletes at Northwestern are covered if needed when there college careers are done.
But that might not matter because athletes who attend public school may view the union as another form of payment and it could result in them not being happy that they aren’t receiving that extra benefit.
“If Northwestern wins the right to unionize than it would lead into college pay,” Worgull said. “When would that be? I don’t know, and just like the union that is something the NCAA doesn’t want to get into. Like I said, that opens up a can of worms. Would scholarship players be the only one’s who are paid? Also would different players be paid more money then one of their scholarship teammates? That would have to be sorted out by the NCAA but I could see college football players, lobbying for it more to be paid then they are now.”
It is hard to know whether or not other athletes from private schools would follow Colter’s lead. But before that can happen at the FBS level, a decision needs to be made by the National Labor Relations Board.
“It would be hard to tell how it would go down, interesting situation because there are so many layers and unknowns, but I think it will be shot down in the end,” Jesse Temple of Fox Sports Wisconsin said. “But before it is passed or denied a lot has to happen in order for any other athletic programs at Northwestern to take their turn in filing the right to unionize or any other private school. It will be interesting to see how the ruling comes out because I would understand if the judge upholds the decision but at the same time it wouldn’t surprise me if Northwestern wins the appeals process.”
Regardless of how this case turns out, Trieu believes that it won’t affect recruiting in one direction or the other if you are a private school versus a public school. As he considers that it hasn’t attracted any current high school senior football player to give a commitment to Northwestern because of the union in this recruiting cycle. Trieu believes that it will always come down to whether or not players feel comfortable at the school and the relationships that they continue to build with the coaching staff.
“Recruiting is an ever evolving practice, and I believe other schools would adapt to it,” Trieu said. “The best schools in the country can always recruit. Ohio State and Wisconsin, among others will always recruit pretty well in the Midwest, and schools like Alabama and Southern California, are always going to get their share of national kids. On the field performance and coaching staffs that can build momentum are what drives recruiting and leads to changes in recruiting success. That said, something like this can help build that momentum. But, I think it is tough, given there is no precedent, to predict what impact it will have, but it is, as someone who has followed recruiting closely for a while, difficult for me to foresee it having wide, sweeping effects.”
It is unpredictable on what the final ruling will be by the National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. If the decision is upheld, the effect on college football would be one that would have great impact and will have a chance to change the history of college athletics.
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