A handy guide to understanding Northwestern’s potential student-athlete union

Northwestern football players cast a vote on Friday, April 26th on whether to form college athletics’ first student union. Whether the 76 student-athletes vote “yes” or “no”, the movement will instigate great change in college athletics. Here are five things you need to know about the situation.

1. How it began

On March 27th, National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players are employees and can unionize. Northwestern responded immediately by stating they planned to appeal, which it did – more on that later. The players argued they were employees because they worked between 20 and 50 hours a week on football, which generated millions in revenue for the university. In return for their work, the players hope to receive better medical care, better concussion testing, complete coverage of a four-year scholarships and the possibility of pay-for-play.

Senior quarterback and NFL hopeful Cain Kolter is the face of the cause for Northwestern. Former UCLA linebacker and current National College Players Associate president Ramogi Huga has advised and supported Kolter and the Northwestern players in developing the player unions. The United Steelworkers have also provided a great deal of support to the movement.

2. The NCAA is pissed

According to For The Win, NCAA president Mark Emmert told reporters at the NCAA tournament that unionization would “throw away the entire collegiate model for athletics.”

“To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union-employee model to address the challenges that exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems,” he said.

Tell us how you really feel, Mark.

3. Why Northwestern was a bad place to start

It’s not a football school like Alabama or Big Ten rival Ohio State, churning out pro prospects in assembly line fashion. Northwestern is a private university that doesn’t make as large of a profit as some other schools.

If players are getting scholarships for playing football, they are granted freedom from the $45,150 tuition – which is almost $20,000 more than a nonresident’s tuition at Ohio State. Ethically, Northwestern looks a bit cleaner on paper than Ohio State or an SEC team might. A better argument could be made that those programs are exploiting their student-athletes.

Northwestern leader, Kolter graduates in May – so he’ll no longer be a student-athlete. To top it off, Northwestern vice president for university relations has gone on record saying they do not support the unionization, that their students are students, not employees. Their coach Pat Fitzgerald is not too hot on it either.

4. Why Northwestern was a good place to start

It isn’t a pro football factory, so these players deserve to get paid while they are still playing. They’re also smart and articulate – they go to Northwestern, after all – and make for good spokesmen in the hot topic discussion. Northwestern also doesn’t use all 85 football scholarships they are allowed, so even fewer of their players are receiving some form of compensation.

Once Kolter graduates, he’s hoping to play in the NFL. While he may have to switch to wide receiver to do it, his pro status might give credibility to his cause. No university or coach – who actually is employed by the University and has his own job to worry about – would go on record supporting this cause, so it is normal that Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald have publicly opposed the movement. No matter where it started, there was going to be backlash.

5. There’s a long way to go

The final steps to make this union legitimate are not yet complete. The outcome is pending Northwestern University’s appeal request. NLRB will consider the appeal and must reevaluate whether the players qualify as employees. This ruling could take months. Regardless of how the players vote, NLRB could overrule its initial decision and nullify the results of the vote. If NLRB stands by their decision to allow the players to unionize, then the players’ vote becomes the deciding factor.

But groups typically unionize if they are being mistreated – and let’s be honest, college football players are pampered. Clay Travis explained on the Dan Patrick show that some SEC football players have their own smoothie bar where they get individualized post-workout drinks. And a few Northwestern players have said they likely won’t vote for the union.

“We filed for employee cards, but that doesn’t mean a union is the right avenue,” quarterback Trevor Siemian told The Chicago Tribune. “Especially at Northwestern, where most guys on the team agree we have been treated very, very well. I’m treated here far better than I deserve.”

Perhaps the NLRB will repeal their ruling. Perhaps, the vote may not be in favor of unionizing. In either case, the issue of amateurism in college sports will not take a step backward. It’s revolutionary that one solution has been executed to this degree. The first real advances have been made, and they won’t be the last.

Photo: USA Today Sports/David Banks