Kain Colter, the quarterback of the Northwestern University football team, announced on January 28 that football players at Northwestern are forming a union and want a seat at the table when rules and regulations are made that affect their athletic careers, their education, and their lives.
“I’m pleased to announce that Northwestern football players have signed cards authorizing the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) to assert their rights before the National Labor Relations Board,” said Colter, a two-time co-captain of the Northwestern football team.
The cards have been submitted to the NLRB regional office in Chicago, which now begins the process of determining whether a union election will be held at Northwestern.
CAPA is a newly organized union of college athletes that grew out of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for college athletes. CAPA is affiliated with the United Steelworkers.
“College athletes need a labor organization that gives them a seat at the table,” said Ramogi Huma, a co-founder of CAPA and a former football player at UCLA.
At the media conference where Colter made the announcement, he read a statement by the Northwestern players who signed union authorization cards.
The players praised Northwestern, its football program, and its coaches but said they needed to take action “to eliminate unjust NCAA rules that create physical, academic, and financial hardships for college athletes across the nation.”
The NCAA, or National Collegiate Athletic Association, governs most college sports in the US.
“The current model (for governing college sports) resembles a dictatorship,” said Colter. “The NCAA places these rule and regulations on students without their input and without negotiations.”
Huma said that “college football and basketball players spend 40 hours a week on their sport alone while their graduation rate hovers around 50 percent.”
“Despite the extraordinary value (student athletes) bring to their universities, they are too often left to pay medical expenses during and after their college careers,” said Huma. “They can be stripped of their college scholarship for any reason including injury.”
They can also have their scholarship opportunities and eligibility held hostage when they try to transfer to a different school, he added.
Perhaps most galling, is the fact that college athletics generate billions of dollars a year, yet the players reap very little of this bounty.
According to The $6 Billion Heist: Robbing College Athletes Under the Guise of Amateurism, a report authored by Huma during his tenure at NCPA and researchers from the Sports Management Department at Drexel University, the NCAA uses the concept of amateurism “to enforce a system that distributes the wealth generated by big money college sports programs away from the players and redirects it to coaches, administrators, conference commissioners, bowl executives, colleges, universities, and corporate entities.”
The average value of a full athletic scholarship during the 2011-2012 school years was $23,204 and these scholarships don’t cover the full cost of college attendance.
The report estimates that the average yearly shortfall of a so-called full scholarship is $3,285, an expense that comes out of the athlete’s own pocket.
Many of these student athletes, says the report, live in poverty while going to school and playing sports.
“Too many athletes who generate huge sums of money for their universities still struggle to pay for basic necessities, and too many live in fear of losing their scholarships due to injury or accident,” said Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers international president at the media conference. “These students deserve some assurance that when they devote weeks, months and years of their lives to an academic institution, that they will not be left out to dry, without the same basic protections that we all expect from the institutions we serve.”
Despite the unfairness of the way that the NCAA distributes revenue, CAPA is not making the redistribution of this wealth its priority now.
Instead, Colter said, CAPA, will concentrate on issues involving player safety, the protection of their scholarships, which can be taken away for any reason, and transfer and eligibility policy.
Kain said that he started thinking about forming a players union last summer after witnessing and thinking about the injustices that college athletes face.
“I came to the conclusion that these injustices occur . . . because student athletes don’t have a voice” when the NCAA makes rules and regulations that affect our lives.