Ramogi Huma and the United Steelworkers celebrated the first big win in their push to unionize college athletes with an appearance on the Colbert Report and a triumphant tour on Capitol Hill.
After 14 years of toiling in the shadows, the head of the National College Players Association and the union backing him had reason to be happy. They won a landmark federal labor decision that said they deserved to negotiate for their interests in a game where billions of dollars are at stake.
But while Northwestern football players are scheduled to vote later this month on whether to let the Steelworkers represent them for better compensation, health insurance and work conditions, it could be years – if ever – before the union earns a spot at the bargaining table.
“The regional director’s decision was only the kickoff of a four-quarter game,” said Washington, D.C., labor attorney Jay Krupin.
Northwestern has a Wednesday deadline to ask for a review of the decision from the full National Labor Relations Board, and the university has said it plans to do so. That move will begin a process that could last years. Like a big game, it could all eventually be decided on a big stage: The U.S. Supreme Court.
Already, the powers that run big time college sports are girding for a fight. So is the football coach at Northwestern, who has made it clear he will do whatever he can to get his players to back off on their efforts to organize.
“I believe it’s in their best interests to vote no,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
If they do, it would be another year under federal labor laws before the players could vote again. The legal case may continue, or it could stall because of the players’ decision, labor attorneys said. Still, the issue is unlikely to go away. Organizers have said athletes at other schools have reached out about possible unionization – though they won’t say who they are.
“We would welcome it being done very quickly but this is a big change,” said Tim Waters, who has spearheaded the unionization drive for the Steelworkers.
About the only thing certain is that the Northwestern players who signed union cards a few months ago to be represented by a union will have long since graduated by the time it all shakes out.
“These guys knew that when they signed the cards,” Waters said. “They knew they were doing this for guys who come after them and they don’t even know their names. That’s the beauty of the solidarity of this thing.”
There may be some cracks in that solidarity, judging from comments from Northwestern players at spring practice. The quarterback who spearheaded the union drive, Kain Colter, is graduating, and the fifth-year senior who is the front-runner to replace Colter said he will be voting against the union.
“I don’t support it,” Trevor Siemian said.
Even if the union wins the vote, Northwestern’s appeal of the ruling could take six months to a year to be decided. Even that won’t be the final word, with a decision either way likely being appealed in court.
“This is such a philosophical divide that I don’t see any possible common ground,” said D. Moschos, a senior partner in labor law at Mirick O’Connell in Worcester, Mass.
“The question of what is an employee will eventually end up in the Supreme Court,” he said.
Regardless of whether the union ever gains a foothold at Northwestern or any other school, the decision last month that declared football players university employees eligible for unionization has changed the tone in college sports. That could mean changes will be made long before the union question is decided.
Though the head of the NCAA said at the Final Four that a union would be “grossly inappropriate,” plans are already evolving for the five biggest college conferences to offer improved benefits on their own. That could include guaranteed four-year scholarships and medical care, along with cash stipends for the players who attract fans to fill the arenas and stadiums.
With the dual threat of former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust suit against the NCAA going to trial in June, there’s a growing sense of urgency to make some changes before the whole so-called college amateur model is upended.
“I think most of Division I memberships see that we’re standing at a fork in the road,” Kansas State president Kirk Schulz said. “What we’re going to put out there again is not perfect, but I believe that the vast majority of members recognize that some of these things must change and that we need to do it rapidly.”
Waters and Huma are willing to wait, even if it means players in college today won’t see any benefits from the battle. They joined up in 2000 when Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, sent emails around to various labor unions asking if any of them were willing to help the NCPA – a tiny group Huma founded – work for better treatment of college players.
Fourteen years later, they believe they’re on the cusp of changing how big time college sports operate.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” Waters said. “You’ve got a large group of people who have now had a taste of fighting for their rights. We think it’s just going to spread.”