Northwestern Players Win First Step Toward Union Recognition

The director of the National Labor Relations Board's Chicago district ruled today that Northwestern football players do qualify as employees, and as such are entitled to form a union. This is as big as it sounds, but there is a ways to go before amateurism as we know it is ended.

Led by QB Kain Colter, the College Athletes Players Association won a surprisingly quick decision from the NLRB regional office—they filed less than two months ago, and were vociferously opposed by Northwestern and the NCAA. The group seeks fully guaranteed scholarships, better medical protections for injured players, and a fund that will allow athletes to continue their educations after they stop playing.


In the money quote from the decision, the regional director wrote, "I find that players receiving scholarships from the Employer are 'employees.'"

This is only the beginning. As expected, Northwestern announced it will appeal the decision to the NLRB national office. After that, it will be on to federal court, and it will be years before anything is finalized. But the NCAA is being chipped away at from all angles, and it feels like it's only a matter of time before the whole thing crumbles down.

Here, the decision. Below that, our story from January when Colter and CAPA filed for NLRB recognition.

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Northwestern Football Players Are Trying To Unionize

In the opening shots of a major new assault on the NCAA's amateurism model, an "overwhelming majority" of Northwestern football players have filed to be recognized as members of a union. Their endgame, if successful, would be college football players officially being classified as employees.

Outside The Lines has the first report of the filings, submitted yesterday to both the national and regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board. The pointman is Northwestern QB Kain Colter, and the movement is being shepherded by the advocacy group founded by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma. Huma, who organized the "All Players United" silent protest in September, is also president of the College Athletes Players Association, the union that would represent the players if it receives formal recognition.


For now, CAPA's stated goals don't involve obtaining pay for players. It merely seeks better medical protections, and fully-guaranteed scholarships that cover the full cost of attending college and wouldn't be taken away if an athlete can't continue playing due to injury. It also wants to establish a fund that would pay players to continue their educations after their NCAA eligibility expires.

"It's become clear that relying on NCAA policymakers won't work, that they are never going to protect college athletes, and you can see that with their actions over the past decade," Huma said. "Look at their position on concussions. They say they have no legal obligation to protect players."

It's all about those obligations, which the NCAA has skillfully shirked over the years. The very term "student-athlete" was coined as a way to avoid having to pay worker's compensation to injured players. But if CAPA receives official recognition, its members will have to be treated as employees—with all the concomitant protections.


This filing could have huge ramifications. If CAPA gains recognition, all DI football and men's basketball players at private universities will be eligible to join. For this reason, the NCAA is expected to oppose the action.

We won't see an outcome for years. Any ruling by the Labor Board's regional office will be appealed nationally, and will almost certainly end up in federal court. That'll be the ruling that matters. Whereas O'Bannon v. NCAA is about athletes being compensated for their likenesses, CAPA's formation is about declaring that college players are employees doing a job, and deserve all the protections that this country guarantees its workers.

Kain Colter starts union movement []