In a decision that could transform American amateur sports, Northwestern University football players cast secret ballots Friday to decide whether to form the nation’s first union for college athletes.
“You got to give the people what they want!” one of the players shouted at reporters, who were kept away from the players as they entered a campus building to vote. Some players waved, and another one did a few dance moves.
Results of the vote won’t be revealed any time soon. The ballot boxes will be sealed for weeks or months as the university challenges the effort to unionize the football team. The full National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) in Washington agreed Thursday to hear the school’s appeal of a regional director’s March ruling that the players are employees and can thereby unionize. A court battle may follow.
Last month’s decision by NLRB official Peter Ohr prompted criticism from the NCAA, Northwestern, and college athletic departments nationwide. Many saw the decision as a first step toward the end of the traditional student-athlete. If the NLRB decision stands, private school athletes could be deemed university employees, leaving student-athletes at public schools with different legal rights.
The Northwestern football team this year was the first to directly challenge the oddities of NCAA financial restrictions. Collegiate competition has created an industry that generates billions of dollars, but relies on players who are paid with scholarships. The NCAA is working to improve the lives of student-athletes. Thursday, the Division I Board of Directors approved a measure simplifying rules for students transferring to a new school. The board also removed limits on snacks between meals, which had led to nit-picking definitions of pharisaical proportions: A bagel is a snack, but add cream cheese and it’s a meal.
A proposal set for a vote in August would give schools in the five biggest football conferences more autonomy to make financial decisions for student-athletes and their families. In outside talks, the NCAA is lobbying the National Basketball Association (NBA) to raise its minimum age to 20, thereby preventing student-athletes from entering professional basketball after just one year of college.
Critics contend the NCAA is only starting to move on these issues now because players are threatening to unionize. NCAA President Mark Emmert and others, though, have repeatedly claimed these issues have been on the agenda for months or years.
The future of the Northwestern vote is not certain. When outgoing quarterback Kain Colter announced in January that he would lead the drive to unionize, he said nearly all of his fellow teammates were behind him. But Colter’s expected replacement Trevor Siemian has said he would vote against a union. “I’ll say there’s a significant number of guys on the team who feel the same as me,” Siemian said this month.