The National Labor Relations Board opened a closely watched hearing Tuesday on a bid by Northwestern football players to form what would be the first union for college athletes in U.S. history.
From a witnesses stand in a federal court building, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter testified that players adhere to sometimes grueling schedules, putting in 40- to 50-hour weeks on football during and before the season. During August training, he said, players wake at 8 a.m. and often only finish practice at 10 p.m.
"It's a job, there is no way around it — it's a job," said the 21-year-old Colter, who is a senior and whose college career is over. He is expected to be in Indianapolis later this week for the NFL combine, a series of pre-draft workouts for prospects.
Asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded, "To play football. To perform an athletic service."
He said he'd aspired to study pre-med but abandoned that plan because of time demands the school makes on football players. He told the hearing players have no choice but to sacrifice academics. He says they could lose their scholarships if they slack off on football.
The key question for the NLRB is whether college football players qualify as employees; if they do, under U.S. law they would have the right to unionize. The Colter-led bid, which is supported by the United Steelworkers, is seen as a test case that could transform the landscape of college athletics. The NCAA and Big Ten Conference, which includes Northwestern, both maintain that college students are not employees whatever their participation in athletics.
Colter's attorney, John Adam, told the NLRB panel that players are employees and scholarships amount to pay.
"Being a football player at Northwestern is hard work. And make no mistake — it is work," Adam said. And, he added, the Wildcats' players earn "their compensation with blood, sweat and tears."
An attorney representing the university, Alex Barbour, challenged the notion the players are employees. He said academics are at the core of a football player's experience at the school.
"Academics always trumps athletics at Northwestern," he said. "Northwestern is not a football factory."
Colter said most of the team's 85 scholarship players support forming a union — though he has been the only one to step forward publicly with the support of the Steelworkers, the newly formed College Athletes Players Association and its leader, former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma.
Supporters say a union would provide athletes a vehicle to lobby for financial security and improved safety, noting that players are left out of the billions generated through college athletics. They contend scholarships sometimes don't even cover livings expenses for a full year.
A decision by the NLRB could come soon after the testimony concludes. For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, like Northwestern. Public universities, which are subject to different regulations, could follow later.
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