Northwestern players see unionization push as spark for change in college sports
Lauren Victoria Burke, Associated Press
EVANSTON, Ill. — No matter how they feel about the push to unionize, at least a few Northwestern players see the movement as a spark for change in college sports.
The question is whether forming a union to bargain for better health insurance and work conditions is the right move for them.
"This is a real issue that people brought up," linebacker Collin Ellis said Saturday. "It shows the power that people could possibly attain. That in itself speaks volumes, and that in itself could be a catalyst for change — yet I feel not at the expense of what we have here."
So Ellis plans to vote against unionizing later this month. The same goes for quarterback Trevor Siemian. Others, such as linebacker Jimmy Hall, wouldn't reveal which way they're leaning.
Either way, they seem to agree on this: They have no issue with their coach or school.
"That's something that I think has kind of been twisted, being a negative thing like we're going against our school," Hall said. "But I don't think that was any of the players' motive starting off — to go against the school. We kind of felt there were things we could change in the whole greater landscape, and that's why guys signed the (union) card (in January)."
Hall spoke Saturday after the final practice of an eventful spring. With former quarterback Kain Colter leading the push to unionize through the College Athletes Players Association, the spotlight has been shining on the program and it won't be turned off anytime soon.
A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board announced on March 26 that Northwestern's football players meet the definition of employees under federal law and are allowed to form the first union for college athletes. The university has appealed, saying it provided "overwhelming evidence" at a hearing earlier this year that the players are "students first." It also noted that it provides four-year scholarships for athletes, not year-to-year scholarships provided by other schools, and that primary or secondary medical coverage is provided as well.
The players are set to vote by secret ballot April 25 on whether to form a union.
"Whether guys are for or against the union, they still believe in the main goals when we signed the card," Hall said. "They still believe that there needs to be something done, that our system isn't perfect. Whether they're for the union at this point, what I think is all the players talk and respect each other's decisions."
Safety Traveon Henry said he's not sure which way the team is leaning. He said Colter is "still trying to get this done" and is "very strong about it."
"He's trying to protect the players," Henry added.
The question is which way they'll vote. Ellis knows which way he's leaning.
"Yeah, there's flaws in any organization," he said. "Give me an organization that doesn't have a flaw and I want to go work there. I feel like that doesn't happen. The NCAA is an organization. Northwestern is an organization. Nothing's perfect. However, there are organizations that treat their people amazing."
He understands that the situation for players at other schools might not be as good as it is at Northwestern, that he and his teammates could essentially take the bullet for them by voting to unionize.
"I thought that's what it was," Ellis said. "We were presented as this was not about Northwestern, this is not about what we have here."
So while Northwestern could serve as a "blueprint" for other schools, he doesn't think it's worth "risking what I love here" and "hurting relationships." He believes the players would be better off working with coach Pat Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips, a sentiment that Siemian expressed earlier in the week.
"Everybody's intent is with the best of heart," Ellis said. "Everybody's trying to create change in a positive way for student-athletes. In that respect, I'm proud of everybody. I'm proud of Kain. I'm proud of what they're trying to accomplish."
Fitzgerald also has encouraged his players to vote against forming a union, saying the concerns can be addressed through communication. But he's not necessarily against change.
"I believe that there are mechanisms for change, and I think it's been well-documented that I am an advocate for change," Fitzgerald said. "I just don't believe that unionization is the way to go."
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