Northwestern football players take union hopes to labor board hearing

By Sara Ganim CNN | 2/18/2014, 9:44 a.m.
The goal: an attempt to revolutionize the way collegiate athletes are treated.
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.

A seat at the table

So, could it work?

New York University labor law professor Richard Epstein said it could, but he cautions that it may take away what fans like about college sports.

With unions come bargaining, the potential for strikes and lack of stability. Imagine pickets instead of rivalry games, he said.

"It's just very difficult to be confident that if you try to put this on the opposite side of the NCAA, it's going to improve things," he said. However, he does think they have a shot at winning this fight. NYU recently settled a case with graduate students who argued they were both students and employees of the university and deserved rights.

But even if the athletes at Northwestern succeed, it could be years before they see any change, and it's unclear how it would affect other teams.

It's very likely the players who took the risk to stand up and say something will never see the benefits. The hearing that starts Tuesday is expected to last through the week. The judge has a month to make a decision, and appeals, which could take years to hash out, may potentially go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Comprehensive reform will always be elusive unless players have a seat at the table, just like the NBA, just like the NFL," Huma said.

There's been growing support for NCAA reform, mostly because of former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon suing the NCAA for rights to his own likeness.

And of course there's long been a debate about whether the for-profit sport athletes deserve a cut of the money they generate.

Lost in that, though, are stories like former Northwestern player Jeff Yarbrough. When he was recruited in 2003, he was among the top six fastest teens in the state of Illinois. But he fractured both legs during his college career and doctors had to put metal rods and screws in both shins. He's in so much pain, he can barely run. He's only 27 years old.

"I'm like a 45-year-old man. I can't move," he said.

Huma said most people don't know that the NCAA doesn't even mandate that colleges cover the cost of medical expenses for current players, and there's no help at all for former ones.

Each year, $30 million is generated by Northwestern football, Huma said, "yet (players) have no guarantee that medical costs will be covered."

Yarbrough wants to have the rods removed from his legs, but the procedure could cost him $20,000 to $30,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, money he doesn't have to spare working as a teacher in Chicago.

"I definitely feel a little let down by the NCAA in regards to football," Yarbrough said. "It's not like other sports. There are concussions that occur. If there was protection for players after they graduate that would be a great deal."

Then he lights up, and says, "I'm really proud of the guys at Northwestern for taking this stand."

CNN producer Brian Rokus contributed to this report.

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