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Other college athletes interested in forming union

Friday, April 4, 2014 | 8:39 p.m. CDT
From left, Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the National College Players Association; Tim Waters, political director of the United Steel Workers; and former Northwestern University football quarterback Kain Colter arrive on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Members of a group seeking to unionize college athletes are looking for allies on Capitol Hill as they brace for an appeal of a ruling that said full scholarship athletes at Northwestern University are employees who have the right to form a union. Colter — the face of a movement to give college athletes the right to unionize — and Huma scheduled meetings Wednesday with lawmakers.

Players from other universities have expressed interest in forming unions in the wake of the landmark decision last week involving the Northwestern football team, a union organizer said Friday.

Tim Waters of the United Steelworkers would not disclose the players or their schools, saying it was too early to reveal who they are. But he said they reached out to him following the decision last week by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board declaring Northwestern's football players have the right to form a union.

"We're not giving out who it is or who they are, but the answer is yes," Waters said. "There's a lot of excitement out there. We've been contacted by a number of players."

A member of Wisconsin's Final Four basketball team said he participated in weekly conference calls in recent months with the union; Ramogi Huma, head of the National College Players Association; and other players. The NCPA and the steelworkers are working together on the union push, with the NCAA, Big Ten Conference and Northwestern opposing the move.

"I don't know exactly how many there were. But on average on a weekly call, there were probably 10 or 20, at least," Wisconsin reserve Zach Bohannon said. "So it was definitely a unique experience just hearing the concerns that players all over the country had and then just voicing my opinion."

Northwestern players will vote April 25 on whether to become the first college athletes represented by a union. But it could be years, if ever, before college athletes are given a seat at the bargaining table to discuss things like practice hours, medical care and concussions.

Still, Waters said the publicity generated by the ruling that Northwestern football players are employees and can unionize has made more players aware that they, too, could have bargaining rights.

"We've been contacted and are taking every one of them seriously," he said. "It's a process, a long process. But leaders of teams across the country have reached out and said we support it and are interested in looking at this for our team."

Complicating any effort for the steelworkers is that the NLRB ruling applies only to private schools like Northwestern. Public schools are covered by state labor laws, and in some states public employees are not allowed to unionize at all.

Huma and the union have been working since 2000 to try and organize college players. Their goal, they say, is not to get schools to pay players but to give them bargaining rights over issues that affect their lives and could affect their health.

It wasn't, however, until after they had collected union authorization cards from a majority of players on the Northwestern football team in January that organizers announced the effort to unionize the team. Huma said Friday that was part of a strategy not to alert the NCAA or the schools in advance about any union activity.

"They've been very out front all along that they don't want any change like this," former UCLA linebacker Huma said.

Bohannon said he learned about the NCPA last summer from a former Wisconsin player, Jared Berggren, who suggested he get on the organization's email list. That led to his participation, beginning in the fall, in a weekly conference call with organizers and players from other schools, he said.

"It was just an hour weekly conference call, and we talked about different issues that we found with the NCAA, what we can do going forward as student athletes to help," Bohannon said.

Bohannon, who is in his final year of eligibility, said he wasn't necessarily advocating for a union but wanted athletes to have more rights.

"Being a Republican, I don't like the whole unionization thing. I don't think that's probably the best option," he said. "But right now, ... there's not many other options for our student-athletes, so I think it got the necessary publicity that we need, and hopefully the NCAA listens to some of our voices."


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