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Union question looms as Northwestern practices

Tuesday, April 1, 2014 | 7:00 p.m. CDT; updated 8:41 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 1, 2014

EVANSTON, Ill. — When members of Northwestern's football team had the chance to sign union cards back in January, some players signed their names, others did not.

Running back Venric Mark said Tuesday that he wondered if the ones who did realized the ramifications of the decision and where it would lead.

"I don't know if people kind of knew what they were going to get into or if they thought it was going to turn out the way it did," he said. "But at the end of the day, now it's time to get back to work. I mean, we have a job to do."

Whether being a student athlete is a job is at the center of a national debate over whether college athletes should unionize. The Wildcats resumed spring practice Tuesday for the first time after a decision from a regional labor official that cleared the way for the formation of a union, setting up Northwestern as ground zero for the effort to organize athletes. The school is appealing.

Former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter has been serving as the face of the movement. Former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the designated president of the would-be union, said last week that the scholarship players would vote within 30 days on whether to authorize the College Athletes Players Association to represent them. The pair will be in Washington on Wednesday to meet with members of Congress.

For now, there's a long list of unanswered questions before the team, such as when exactly the vote would be held, whether scholarships would be counted as taxable income and how it would affect the training schedule in a "work week" for those who play on the team.

Could there be a division between players who signed union cards and those who did not? And what about the team's relationship with coach Pat Fitzgerald?

"It doesn't threaten anything," said Mark, who would not say whether or not he signed a union card.

"Northwestern has treated us all well, and we know that. And we know that it is a privilege to be here, so at the end of the day, we're all going to support our former teammate; but we also know we're here to get a degree, and we're also here to play football."

If Fitzgerald felt he was in an awkward spot, he wasn't about to say so Tuesday.

"No. Any football questions?" he said.

Fitzgerald had not addressed the ruling from a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board with the team as of Tuesday morning. He and athletic administrators had an afternoon meeting with the school's lawyers.

"You know there's a lot of things that we'll discuss here (with the team), but from the standpoint of the way that we've operated here, I've got full confidence in the way we run our program and the guys have been terrific and I think they've shown the commitment to the program," Fitzgerald said. "So it's no change for us."

Unionization would be a huge change to the landscape.

Colter believes athletes lack basic protections, such as the guarantee of medical coverage and the promise of a four-year scholarship at most institutions. Scholarships are often renewed on an annual basis, and athletes feel vulnerable as a result, particularly if there's a change in coaches or philosophy.

Colter has also testified about abandoning the idea of entering a pre-med program because of the time demands Northwestern places on its football players. He has also stressed that he enjoyed his time there and has praised Fitzgerald.

Defensive lineman Chance Carter said he signed a union card. But he doesn't know how the team would vote if they have to make a decision this month to form a union.

"I don't know," Carter said. "I'm not sure what everyone's reaction is. ... A lot of us just got back in town (after spring break). We're trying to figure things out."

Carter said he only read the first and last parts of an email message from Colter addressing the ruling. He did say that Colter would answer players' questions and address their concerns face-to-face when he returns to campus. Carter wasn't sure exactly when that will happen.


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