ROSEMONT, Ill. — Northwestern athletics director Jim Phillips says college athletes need more than just a voice when it comes to issues that affect them. They need a vote.
"That has to happen," he said.
"I know it's not the right mechanism for change nationally," he said.
While Phillips opposes unionization, he hopes the discussion leads to changes that give athletes a greater say — including a vote — when it comes to their welfare, their health and their safety.
That's one of the biggest issues hanging over the college landscape, with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter leading the push to form the first union for college athletes. And as Big Ten administrators gathered at the conference's headquarters on Tuesday, Phillips made a few things clear.
He supports the motives behind the push to form a union. He just doesn't think it's the way to go.
A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that they are university employees, giving them the go-ahead. Northwestern appealed. Players voted last month on whether to form the first union for college athletes, but the result is not known because the NLRB impounded the ballots pending the appeal and a possible court fight.
"It goes against all that is what we believe is right in the landscape of college athletics," Phillips said. "We're not the minor leagues. When 98.7 percent of your student-athletes don't go on to play professional sports ... college athletics is college athletics. Is it in the right place? It's not in the right place, but we're going to hopefully work to get it to the right place. But does that mean you drastically change the dynamics and the relationship of what college athletics is supposed to be?"
Phillips doesn't see a need for a third party to come between athletes and coaches and administrators. He also warned unionizing would lead to higher costs and a decrease in scholarship opportunities.
But he is adamant that athletes need more power. Simply putting them in advisory roles is not enough.
"Let's get them ... in a position where they're allowed to vote and make a difference," Phillips said. "They're living the experience. Why wouldn't we listen to them? They know more than we do about their day-to-day experiences as student-athletes."
Supporters say a union would help athletes obtain better compensation, medical care and other benefits. The day before Northwestern football players cast their ballots, the NCAA's board of directors endorsed a proposal to give schools in the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC more power to address such issues for its athletes, including adding the full cost-of-attendance in scholarships, expanded health insurance, additional help with academic and career counseling, and providing money for the families of athletes to travel to NCAA tournament events. A formal vote is not expected until August.
"I think that we've got to find a way within the reform effort to find us some autonomy to do things a little bit differently given our situations," Nebraska athletics director Shawn Eichorst said.
Critics say the governing body is only moving on those issues now because of the possibility of unionizing. But NCAA officials have noted these issues have been on the agenda for years and got bogged down in the approval process.
Either way, steps are being taken. The discussion continues, with the union decision looming.
"It's been discussed to a degree, but some of it seems to be at this point out of our hands at least for a certain amount of time," Minnesota athletics director Norwood Teague said. "We follow it, are concerned about it, want it to work out."
Phillips said there's "zero" angst on his part about the union decision and that he's "at peace" with a process that thrust his school into the spotlight no matter how it plays out.
He said he's "really proud" of Colter and the players for bringing the issues to the forefront, for helping drive the discussion, for being a catalyst for change at the national level.
"Areas of welfare and health and safety, those are the right kinds of things for us to be talking about," he said. "So I think there's some really good and positive residual that's occurred from the conversation about unionization."