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A union for college athletes?

Posted: January 31, 2014 7:27 p.m.
Updated: January 31, 2014 7:27 p.m.

Northwestern football players are upset about the long hours, the rugged schedule and the nonexistent wages they receive.

So they’ve decided to try to start a union for college athletes.

NPR reported on Jan. 29 that Northwestern University’s football team is looking to unionize because of the long hours spent preparing, practicing and playing. And because the “scholarships that many receive don't fully reflect their value to the school,” the students feel they should be able to unionize, NPR reported.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter announced the creation of the College Athletes Players Association, which will be backed by the United Steelworkers, USA Today reported. Colter said students need to have better representation throughout collegiate governance, saying that the current structure “resembles a dictatorship,” USA Today reported.

Colter told USA Today that much of what Northwestern students do resembles that of employees.

"We're already paid in the form of a scholarship and stipend checks we get," Colter said to USA Today. "That's dependent on us producing on the field, us providing an athletic service to the university. If we don't provide that service anymore, we won't have a scholarship anymore."

But they face opposition from the NCAA, which oversees all college athletics. The NCAA said, "This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education."
ESPN writer Lester Munson said the Northwestern students have a long road ahead and that their attempt to unionize would likely fail.

“These actions, which would have been unthinkable several years ago, are clear evidence of powerful winds of change in college sports,” Munson wrote. “Yet the Northwestern players face significant and obvious legal obstacles in their quest to form a union.”

Court decisions from the past 30 years are having an influencing on this situation, ESPN said. Players have to convince the National Labor Relations Board that what they do for Northwestern athletics is similar to what an employee does in the workforce. ESPN said that won’t be an easy thing to do.

"They are paying tuition to attend the university, and they are primarily students," said Zev Eigen, a professor of labor law at Northwestern, according to ESPN. "It will be very difficult for them to convince anyone that they are employees."

But Forbes writer Roger Groves said that players wanting to unionize isn’t such a farfetched idea.

“The common point is that college players within a union are more part of the free market system because they too would be bargaining about wages, benefits and working conditions based on value in the marketplace,” Groves wrote. “University janitors have that right. Why not those who perform other services? Both can take classes, earn credits and earn a degree. For athletes at least, this could be a degree without the hypocrisy.”


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