The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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March 26, 2014

College athletes can unionize, federal agency says

(Continued)

CHICAGO —

For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, such as Northwestern, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities.

Outgoing Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter took a leading role in establishing CAPA. The United Steelworkers union has been footing the legal bills.

Colter, whose eligibility has been exhausted and who has entered the NFL draft, said nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on the Wildcats roster backed the union bid, though only he expressed his support publicly.

CAPA attorneys argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players' labor to generate billions of dollars in profits. That, they contend, makes the relationship of schools to players one of employers to employees.

In its endeavor to have college football players be recognized as essential workers, CAPA likened scholarships to employment pay — too little pay from its point of view. Northwestern balked at that claim, describing scholarship as grants.

The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes defray some of expenses. Critics say that isn't nearly enough, considering players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.

During the NLRB's five days of hearings in February, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald took the stand for union opponents, and his testimony sometimes was at odds with Colter's.

Colter told the hearing that players' performance on the field was more important to Northwestern than their in-class performance, saying, "You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics." Asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: "To play football. To perform an athletic service."

But Fitzgerald said he tells players academics come first, saying, "We want them to be the best they can be ... to be a champion in life."

An attorney representing the university, Alex Barbour, noted Northwestern has one of the highest graduation rates for college football players in the nation, around 97 percent. Barbour insisted, "Northwestern is not a football factory."

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