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Northwestern football players take union hopes to labor board hearing

By Sara Ganim CNN | 2/18/2014, 9:44 a.m.
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter speaks at a news conference in Chicago. Calling the NCAA a "dictatorship," a handful of Northwestern football players announced they are forming the first labor union for college athletes — one they hope will eventually represent players nationwide. AP photo.

Kain Colter actually got this idea sitting in a college classroom at Northwestern University.

The 21-year-old quarterback, soon to graduate with a degree in psychology, is taking the day off from training for the NFL draft to take the stand at a National Labor Relations Board hearing today and testify against his own university and on behalf of fellow football players.

The goal: an attempt to revolutionize the way collegiate athletes are treated.

Colter, with the help of a team of lawyers and the National College Players Association, is leading an effort to unionize the Northwestern football team.

Backed by the overwhelming majority of the team, Colter will kick off a days-long hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago.

"Student athletes don't have a voice," Colter said at a press conference last month. "They don't have a seat at the table. The current model resembles a dictatorship with the NCAA putting rules and regulations on students without their input."

A union would certainly change that. It would put the athletes in a position to bargain, to demand things that college athletes have never had before -- like stipends, continuing medical coverage after graduation, more concussion testing and even a portion of the profits of the multibillion dollar windfall created by college football and basketball.

Never before have current players been so vocal in standing up for themselves. It's a bold move, given the incredibly controlling nature of collegiate athletics.

"These guys at Northwestern are really an inspiration, not just to other football and basketball players and athletes, but these are young men standing together, 70 to 80 guys and they're taking on a multibillion industry because they know it's the right thing to do," said Ramogi Huma, president of the NCPA, which last season organized the All Players United wristband protest in support of NCAA reform at Georgia Tech, Northwestern and the University of Georgia.

"If they win, it immediately sets a standard," Huma said.

Colter came to Huma with this idea last year, and Huma has been helping him with resources to see it through. If they win, it could have a huge effect on the structure of the NCAA.

Despite some quiet resistence at Georgia and Georgia Tech against the players who participated in the All Players United wristband protest in September, Northwestern leaders have been vocally supportive of the leadership exhibited by the team. They don't, however, agree with the idea.

At the NLRB hearing, it's expected to present a handful of experts who will argue that college sports are not a commercial venue.

"Northwestern teaches its students to be leaders and independent thinkers," a lengthy statement says, in part. But it continues "we believe that a collective bargaining process at Northwestern would not advance the discussion of these topics. ... Our student-athletes are not employees, but students."

The NCAA, which is not a party to the case, also put out a statement opposing the move.

"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," said Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, in a statement. "Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary."