In the weeks since Peter Sung Ohr, the director of the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern with remaining eligibility are employees and directed an election to take place that will decide whether they can unionize, speculation has swirled that alumni would try to influence the vote.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald and multiple players – including quarterback Trevor Siemian, who said players erred in not conferring with Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips before allowing a ‘third party’ to get involved – have gone public with their intention to side against the College Athletes Players Organization. And there are other people connected to the University who believe collective bargaining is not the right vehicle for the players to gain more rights and protections.
But there are some alumni who are committed to advancing the players’ agenda. Led by Kevin Brown, a defensive back at NU in the 1980s, an advocacy group composed of former players and alumni will be formed before the union vote. The Daily Northwestern reported that the group will not try to influence the election.
“The actual players now have a four-year shelf life,” Brown told the Daily. “But the alumni are here permanently, and we’re not going anywhere. So we have the capacity to make the University greater.” Brown said he expects several hundred former players and alumni to support the group.
One of Northwestern’s arguments in this case is that most of the measures CAPA seeks to collectively bargain for do not fall under the University’s purview. Two of CAPA’s expressed goals are prohibited under current NCAA bylaws.
Athletes cannot profit off of their names, images or likenesses – a restriction a pending lawsuit against the college sports governing body filed by a group of plaintiffs headed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon seeks to overturn. And the value of scholarships cannot be increased to cover the full cost of attendance. This is likely to change, however, when a new governance structure affording more autonomy to schools from the five power conferences is put in place.
Still, Northwestern can address many of CAPA’s other demands while still abiding NCAA rules. The university, for instance, controls the medical coverage it provides to its athletes. According to Brown, the advocacy group will engage Phillips and the board of trustees about this and other issues.
“We want to step higher (than the union vote),” Brown said. “We want to address issues at Northwestern. We want to engage both the athletic director and the Board of Trustees about this issues. That’s what we want the focus to be: making clear policy changes that can look at issues like extending the amount of years that kids have to obtain a degree.
“We also agree with the health issue, that Northwestern has the wherewithal, the endowment to endow a fund that could subsidize health care costs. Those are the type of real policy issues that we want to address that Northwestern doesn’t need NCAA permission to do.”
The election is scheduled for April 25.