Northwestern University football players are advocating the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recognize them as university employees, which would form the first union for college athletes in U.S. history.
Quarterback Kain Colter testified last week before the board that he was essentially paid to play via his generous scholarship, and that his “athletic service” to the school brought in millions of dollars. He co-founded the newly-formed College Athletes Players Association, and is demanding that players be allowed to lobby for financial security and improved safety. The group contends that college athletes are left out of the billions of dollars generated by their sports, and that many players’ scholarships don’t even cover annual living costs.
The Colter-led bid, supported by the United Steelworkers, is seen as a test case that could transform the landscape of college athletics at private schools. Publicly funded universities operate under different regulations, but could follow suit if Colter sets a precedent. The NCAA and Big Ten Conference, which includes Northwestern, both maintain that college students are not employees whatever their participation in athletics might be.
Unlike professional baseball, the NFL cannot draft players until they are three years out of high school. Promising high school football players are scouted into college football teams, where they help the school win games and grow in prestige and revenue. For instance, during the 2011-2012 school year, Northwestern spent $20.1 million on football and made $27.5 million in revenue from ticket sales, merchandise sales, and increased donations.
From a witnesses stand in a federal court building, Colter characterized playing college football as a job and said schools make it clear to incoming players that athletics are a higher priority than academics. He described grueling schedules, putting in 40-50 hours per week both during and before the season.
When asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: “To play football. To perform an athletic service.” Later, he said players earn the money, in part, “by sacrificing our bodies."
During his opening statement, Alex Barbour, an attorney representing the university, insisted academics are at the center of a football player’s college experience. “Academics always trumps athletics at Northwestern,” he said. “Northwestern is not a football factory.”
Janna Blais, deputy director of athletics for Student-Athlete Welfare, said the football team’s latest cumulative GPA was just over 3.0—a B average. She also said 97 percent of football players get their degrees, the highest rate in country.
But during his testimony, Colter said he abandoned his hopes of entering a pre-med program because of time demands Northwestern makes on football players. He said chemistry was invariably offered at times that conflicted with football practice.
Colter’s claims were countered by the testimony of three former Northwestern football players—Doug Bartels, John Henry Pace, and Patrick Ward. Bartels successfully completed a pre-med degree while playing as a starting offensive lineman. Pace and Ward both earned engineering degrees. All three men described the Northwestern athletic staff as being nothing but supportive.
A decision by the NLRB is expected soon and would be subject to appeal.