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College athletes take labor cause to Capitol Hill

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Northwestern University athletes pressed their case for collective bargaining rights during meetings Wednesday with lawmakers, as a vote was scheduled for them to decide whether to authorize a union.

The vote will be held April 25, according to Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association.

During meetings on Capitol Hill, Huma and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter tried to drum up support just a week after a ruling that the athletes were employees and had the same rights to bargain collectively as other workers.

"Health and safety of athletes is the concern, especially to reduce the risk of brain trauma," Huma said.

Added Colter, co-founder of the association: "We're up here raising awareness."

Even though the issue is not directly before lawmakers, "Congress is an important part of the chess board," he said after meeting with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Brown said in a prepared statement that "the right to fair treatment is why all workers, no matter the job or venue, should have the opportunity to unionize."

"College athletes dedicate the same hours to their support as full-time employees and deserve the same protections as any other worker," he said.

Colter and Huma were accompanied by Tim Waters, national policy director of the United Steelworkers union, which is underwriting and financing the effort.

More meetings were scheduled Thursday.

"We're up here to let the leadership know what's going on, basically getting information out," Huma said.

The Chicago-region director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Northwestern's football players on scholarships are employees of the university under the National Labor Relations Act and therefore have the right to vote to unionize.

Northwestern, based in Evanston, Ill., has said it will appeal the ruling. It has until April 9 to do so. The full NLRB has yet to weigh in on the finding.

Stacey Osburn, director of public and media relations for the Indianapolis-based NCAA, said in a prepared statement that Huma's concern was "unwarranted." A Northwestern official has said that the students were not employees and that unionization and collective bargaining were not the appropriate methods to address their concerns.

"The law is fairly clear and consistent with Northwestern's position, so the NCAA has made no contacts with anyone in Congress attempting to ban the unionization of student-athletes," Osburn said.

Colter, however, called the decision a "strong ruling" and predicted it "will be hard to overturn."

The NLRB does not have jurisdiction over public universities, so the push to unionize athletes has been primarily targeted toward private schools such as Northwestern.

Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said after a meeting with the Northwestern group that "what they've drawn up here is a list of concerns that they have as athletes in Division I schools where there is clearly an imbalance in the relationship. And they're seeking the right to form a union for the purposes of putting some balance back in that relationship."

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  • Don't Play
    These athletes always have the option of not playing a sport in college and funding their own education. We were fortunate to have both of our kids accept Division 1 scholarships. It was tough on the body and required devotion and time, but neither of them would trade one minute of their experiences.If they press this issue too much, the athletic scholarships and chance to attend college for very little money will disappear for a great deal of young people. Are the coaches paid too much? Yes - but I would also believe that network and cable TV personalities make a pretty good living broadcasting. All athletes are paid too much, except a free market and our ticket dollars enable that pay. Don't like it? Don't accept the scholarship offer and don't buy tickets or watch on TV this weekend.
  • Oh, Please
    This points up the reason why we need more studies on concussion related injuries, because these players all must have them. Colleges and universities treat their football players like GOLD! At a time when adults in the workforce are voting down unions resoundingly, and voters in 24 states have passed right to work legislation, these lucky college kids want to form one. All of those scholarships are funded by alumni money. It will be interesting to see how fast that money goes away.
  • Is joining a union illegal?
    Can someone clarify this? I didn't realize lawmakers could decide to "authorize" a union or not.
  • Congress wants unions?
    I wonder how the Tennessee delegation will respond to this, given its hostility to unionization efforts by Volkswagen workers. Or are some unions OK, depending on ...
  • Good for them
    Hopefully the collusion of schools and coaches making billions off of these players is over. I doubt it though. Good for them for trying to better their situation. Not sure why a lot of people are trying to tell these young people what they should be doing instead of forming a union. It's their business, not ours.

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