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Northwestern football players vote whether to form first union

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Updated: April 25, 2014 9:13AM



Northwestern University football players began voting Friday morning on whether to unionize, but the university’s appeal of the decision to allow unionization means the outcome of that vote won’t be known for some time.

The ballots will be impounded until the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. issues a decision affirming, modifying or reversing the Chicago NLRB regional director’s March 26 decision to let the Wildcats football team vote to form a union, according to a NLRB statement. There are 76 players eligible to vote. A majority of the actual votes cast is required to authorize a union, said university spokesman Bob Rowley.

The Chicago regional director, Peter Sung Ohr, had found the University’s scholarship football players are employees under the National Labor Relations Act and have the right to vote on forming a union.

John G. Adam, the lead attorney for the College Athletes Players Association representing the football players, said Thursday the NLRB’s decision to review the case was not unexpected, and he welcomes the chance to show that the Chicago decision was the correct one.

“We welcome the chance to make this decision (that college scholarship players are employees) the law of the land,” Adam said in a phone interview.

Northwestern University spokesman Alan Cubbage said Thursday the school is “pleased” by the NLRB’s review, and noted that the NLRB invited other interested parties to file what are called “amicus” briefs that offer relevant, additional information or arguments that the board might wish to consider.

“Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are students first and foremost, not employees,” Cubbage said in a statement. “We believe the recent ruling by the NLRB regional director was flawed and overlooked or ignored key evidence that Northwestern presented supporting that position.

“We agree that there currently are important issues regarding college athletics nationally and that students should have a voice in those discussions,” Cubbage said. “However, we believe that a collective bargaining process at Northwestern would not advance the discussion of these topics, in large part because most of the issues being raised by the union are outside the purview of Northwestern.”

Meanwhile, a group of former Northwestern University football players calling themselves “NU Game Changers” said Thursday the university can be a leader in reforming college athletics, regardless of whether the Wildcats football players vote Friday to form a union.

The group, including alumni Pat Herrington, Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander, Chris Hinton, Todd Jenkins and others, held a news conference Thursday to express their support for the Wildcats football players and former quarterback Kain Colter, who started the unionization drive, and to call for reforms including expanded medical benefits for sports-related injuries. Others supporting the initiative are Alex Moyer, Kevin Brown, Tracy Parsons, Richard Buchanan and Jared Carpenter.

Colter exhausted his eligibility to play football at the end of the 2013 football season, and therefore he is not eligible to vote in the union election.

The football alumni group’s proposals also call for increasing athletes’ stipends to cover personal and miscellaneous expenses, and creating trust accounts for athletes from endorsement and marketing deals that the athletes could use after they graduate.

See the 10-point list at:

http://www.nugamechangers.com/blueprint.html

In a letter to the Northwestern University Board of Trustees, the group wrote: “The University should begin by making modifications to the governance process to give players a greater voice and a substantive stake in the creation of policies and regulations that impact their interests.

“We believe that a greater voice for players creates an equity that is in both the University’s and the players’ interests. It protects and preserves the game that we love, and also initiates a new model and practice for the business of college sports. It will create an even more intelligent and reasonable model and framework where schools can substantively address athletically related revenues with the individuals that are largely responsible for producing those revenues.”

Telander said he respects and admires Colter for starting the conversation, especially since Colter has endured the same kind of ridicule and marginalization that many reformers or whistleblowers do. Yet young people are the very ones to take bold stands, he said.

“Kain stood to gain nothing” by taking his stance, Telander said. “Kain will go down in collegiate history as a game changer.”

Northwestern spokesman Cubbage said the university will consider the suggestions “as we work with our alumni, student-athletes and others to address these issues going forward.”

Separately, former Northwestern sports information director George Beres, 81, said he supports a players’ union, disagrees with Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s and the administration’s efforts to dissuade the players and believes that Northwestern should drop its football program if the union effort fails.

“I’ve known many great Wildcat players,” Beres said, “but the most admirable are Colter and others on the current team who sacrifice to get the equity that comes with a union. If it does not come, then football should be dropped.”

Northwestern spokesman Rowley said that Fitzgerald and the administration are within their rights to state their opinions, and he doesn’t believe that amounts to intimidating the football players.

“Coach Fitzgerald and everyone else has had nothing but praise for Kain Colter,” Rowley said, noting that the university has said repeatedly it teaches its students to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world.

Contributing: Zay Smith

Email: sguy@suntimes.com

Twitter: @sandraguy



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