Northwestern players cast historic vote on union

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Northwestern football players voted Friday morning on whether or not they wished to formally unionize, but it could be months before the results are known.

The ballots were sealed and impounded by the National Labor Relations Board as it reviews Northwestern’s appeal of the ruling last month that players qualify as employees of the university and, if they wish, have a right to unionize.

“I’m proud of what the Northwestern football team has accomplished,” former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter said in a statement. “They are giving a voice to the voiceless and empowering current and future college athletes. We’re one step closer to a world where college athletes are not stuck with sports-related medical bills, do not lose their scholarships when they are injured, are not subject to unnecessary brain trauma and are given better opportunities to complete their degree.”

Colter has spearheaded the unionization movement along with the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent the players if a majority voted in favor of unionization.

National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr ruled March 26 that scholarship football players at Northwestern qualified as university employees. Northwestern appealed the decision to the NLRB’s national board earlier this month, and the Friday votes won’t be counted until the NLRB reaches a final decision.

For many, though, the simple fact that players had the opportunity to vote was momentous in itself.

“This is a huge victory for the players,” said Tim Waters, political director of United Steelworks, which is paying for CAPA’s legal fees. “This is the biggest victory yet in the fight for college athletes’ rights. It’s not going to be the last.

“The fact that they can walk in that [voting] booth has taken an awful lot.”

As for the result of the vote, momentum appears to have swung in the “no” direction over recent weeks. A number of Northwestern players, including current quarterback Trevor Siemien, have come out publicly against the idea of unionization. Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald also urged his players to vote “no” Friday.

Nate Williams, a Central Catholic High School graduate who played linebacker at Northwestern from 2006-10, said he has talked to some current players, but doesn’t have a good feel for how the vote would go.

While many of his former teammates came from more conservative backgrounds, Williams said his Pittsburgh upbringing made him more open to the idea of a union, even if he’s not positive it’s the right avenue to resolve the issues.

“I think if it was any other school, it might be almost a definite yes across the board,” Williams said.

“Obviously, the word ‘union’ scares a lot of people away. My dad was part of a labor union back in high school when he was working the railroads and stuff in Oklahoma. I come from a working-class family, pretty blue-collar. The word ‘union’ never bothered me, it was never frowned upon.”

If the union vote passes, Northwestern already has said it will not bargain with CAPA and instead will appeal to the federal courts.

Even if it fails, the vote was another milestone in the changing landscape of college athletics.

“This is the beginning of the end of the current system that exploits players for the massive profit of a few people,” Waters said.

“The NCAA, Northwestern and everybody that’s been fighting it, they know that you can't stuff this genie back in the bottle.”


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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