Last week, United Auto Workers failed to unionize one of their best bets: the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This week, an even unlikelier group -- the football players at Northwestern University --  are attempting to unionize.

The campaign's leader, 21-year-old NU quarterback Kain Colter, believes college athletes need representation in order to have a say in the “athletic service” they provide the University. But unlike other groups with union dreams, there's an extra step involved: he first has to prove that he and his teammates are University employees.

It truly is a job,” Colter told the National Labor Relations Board at a hearing on Tuesday. In addition to pointing out the obvious similarities between college athletes and professional athletes, he compared their training regimen to that of Navy SEALs -- a stance decried as insensitive to those who actually prepare for warfare.UniversityEmployees

Given such a hefty burden of proof, it's lucky he already has a small entourage of supporters. The president of the National College Players Association, Ramogi Huma, submitted a petition to the NLRB on their behalf, along with signed union cards representing at least 30% of the 85 NU players with scholarships. The team also managed to secure financial backing from the United Steelworkers union, who initially needed some convincing. “We were like an overwhelming part of the population in that we figured athletes were lucky because they're getting an education," United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard said, according to ESPN. "But then we looked into it and realized it's a myth. Many don't get a true education and their scholarships aren't guaranteed."

To build a credible case that student-athletes (NCAA mandated this term to avoid legal scuffles like this one) are in fact employees, Colter must present their athletic responsibilities as fundamentally separate from their student ones. He cites the existence of athletic scholarships, which disappear if a player can't fulfill their athletic obligations, as evidence of "compensation" for playing football, a concept that NU denies.

But he's also saying that the dual role of student and athlete clash in unfair ways. Football puts undue pressure on the studying patterns, class choices, and ultimate career paths of students. Formerly an aspiring orthopedic surgeon, Colter says he endured setbacks, like when an academic adviser told him that early morning pre-med classes were off limits due to his football regimen. He argues that NU was acting as an employer when they dictated his year-round schedule. 

"Players are not complaining about this arrangement," said United Steelworkers national political director Tim Waters, according to ESPN. "They're just calling it what it is – pay for play.”

Colter says their demands are pretty basic – guaranteed medical coverage for current students and possible continuing coverage/trust funds for former athletes, scholarships that continue in the event of an injury, and more concussion testing. 

It's about protecting them and future generations to come,” he said, fully acknowledging that as a senior he would not experience any of these changes firsthand. This sort of selfless campaign reminds me of the older workers at Boeing this fall who voted in solidarity with the younger generation, though they themselves would not be affected.

Northwestern disagrees with Colter's position and voiced their opposition in this statement: "Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary." During the hearing, NU attorney Anna Wermuth used a very interesting piece of evidence to cross-examine Colter: his own resume. If the endeavors of being a student and being a football player were indeed so separate, she asked, why would Colter list "leadership skills" gained on the field? She also noted that scholarships are tax-free and thus do not constitute true compensation.

Even the NLRB hearing officer Joyce Hofstra admitted NU's case is "a little weak." 

But change isn't out of the question, especially in the wake of several related lawsuits: one in which NYU graduate students became the first in the nation to unionize as employees and another in which UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon sued for the rights to his own likeness. The latter raises questions of who should stand to benefit from the growing business of college sports.

As recruiters, do you see former college athletes at a disadvantage on the career playing field, having sacrificed their academics for athletics? Do you think being a college-level athlete constitutes a "job," making it eligible for benefits? What would you say to Kain Colter?

Tags: News