Northwestern Is Doing Everything It Can to Stop Its Football Team from Unionizing

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Northwestern football players are set to vote on Friday to decide whether the team will take the unprecedented step of forming a union for college athletes. But coaches, administrators, and even the former school president are doing all they legally can to ensure the players vote "No."

Friday's vote comes about a month after the National Labor Relations Board's important ruling that scholarship players on the Northwestern football are considered "employees," and thus have the opportunity to form a union. The NCAA opposes that employee designation, and insists all players are students first, and not workers. Northwestern's players, led by senior (and no longer eligible) quarterback Kain Colter, have most prominently asked the University for better insurance coverage for those injured on the field. Despite their reasonable demands, it's the very concept of unionization that could upset the entire foundation that college sports is built on.

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

That's why Northwestern has used a mix of carrots and sticks in attempts to influence the players' vote, and in that way, maintain the status quo. Most prominently, head coach Pat Fitzgerald sent the team an email explaining that casting a Yes vote on unionization would be a betrayal.

“Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interests in mind.

Coming from a head coach — the man who control the players' fates as athletes — those are powerful words for a young man to hear. "You have nothing to gain by forming a union," he added in the email. In addition, Fitzgerald has met with scholarship players one-on-one, and he and assistant coaches have emailed parents to make their point. 

Similarly, former star quarterback Dan Persa has urged players to reconsider their vote, The Times writes. And President Emeritus Henry Bienen said the school would consider dropping its Division I football program entirely should the players unionize. The school has given carrots to entice the players, too, in the form of new iPads and a party at a bowling alley.

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An athlete union could potentially wreak tremendous havoc on the school's athletic department. The problem, though is that collective bargaining law rarely deals in absolutes, as Deadspin's excellent guide to NCAA unionization explains. No one really knows what it would mean for Northwestern or the NCAA. A football union at a small private university like Northwestern does not necessitate that a major public school like Ohio State immediately begin paying its women's volleyball team to uphold Title IX requirements. But there's no doubt it would be the biggest change to hit college sports since the very idea of giving scholarships to athletes began.

For unionization to pass, Friday's vote requires a simple majority from players. Last month, Colter insisted every scholarship player agreed with the case for unionization, even if they wouldn't say so publicly, but several players have since stated their opposition. The matter won't be solved with ballot tomorrow, however; the NLRB won't decree a resolution until it deals with the university's appeal to their decision, which could take several more months.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.