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NLRB hearing begins in NU football players’ quest for union

Updated: March 14, 2014 8:33AM

A lawyer for football players at Northwestern University who seek to form a union told reporters Wednesday the effort represents the first step in what he hopes will be an overhaul of Division I private university football standards.

“For too many years, college athletes have been exploited and have been denied their rights as employees,” attorney John G. Adam said during a news conference following opening statements before a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer about whether the football players should be considered employees. He said basketball players are ripe for making the same argument.

The hearing took place at the NLRB’s Chicago office at the Rookery building.

Adam, a Royal Oak, Mich., attorney representing the College Athletes Players Association, which the Wildcats players started, said CAPA is not alleging that Northwestern University has violated NCAA rules.

Instead, he said CAPA intends to “demolish the myth” created by the NCAA that student-athletes — who receive scholarships, bring in “billions of dollars of revenue” to their schools and spend more than 40 hours a week in their sports training and activities — are not employees.

Northwestern University’s attorney, Alex V. Barbour, argued that the players are students first and foremost and that their scholarships provide an educational experience. He cited a 2004 NLRB case in which graduate-student teachers at Brown University were deemed to have no right to unionize.

Barbour, of Chicago, also questioned the composition of members of the athlete’s group, whose identities remain undisclosed.

Despite the dispute, Northwestern spokesman Storer “Bob” Rowley told reporters, “We’re really proud of our students. We love our students. We’ve taught them to be thought leaders. They’re raising an issue that is an important issue. . . . The health consequences of football is a national issue. . . . We just don’t believe the proper way [to debate the issue] is through a labor negotiation.”

Led by former Wildcats quarterback and receiver Kain Colter, 85 of the team’s 100 players have signed the unionization petition.

While CAPA aims to represent only those players who have received athletic scholarships, Barbour called this an “arbitrary grouping.” He argued that the “scope of the unit” should also include walk-on players. Walk-on players pay tuition to attend the university but are also members of the football team.

This could serve as a key issue regarding arguments for both sides. If the NLRB were to rule that walk-ons must be part of the unit, that could hurt CAPA’s argument because those players are participating strictly on a voluntary basis. They are not awarded compensation in the form of a scholarship like players such as Colter.

Colter, whom Adam called “a star witness” and “a star person,” is scheduled to testify when hearings resume on Tuesday.

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