EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS/AP) — Northwestern University football players were voting Friday on whether they want to form a union, but results of the vote might not be revealed for months.
After Friday’s vote, the results will be sealed while the university appeals a ruling from the Chicago-area head of the National Labor Relations Board that scholarship players qualify as Northwestern employees, and are permitted to unionize.
The full NLRB has agreed to hear the school’s appeal of that ruling, a process that could take months, perhaps even years.
A total of 76 Northwestern scholarship players are eligible to vote on Friday, but players are not required to cast a ballot. The initial decision on whether there will be a players’ union will be based on the majority of votes cast.
Former quarterback Kain Colter, who led the movement to unionize, is not among the players eligible to vote, as he used up his player eligibility at the end of last season.
A university spokesman said the NLRB will not reveal how many players voted.
Friday’s vote won’t be the final word on whether the players form a union, as the NLRB could reverse the regional director’s ruling that the players are university employees allowed to form a union.
Northwestern lecturer and ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson said he believes the original ruling will stand, but most players will vote against forming a union.
“The coaches have campaigned vigorously and aggressively for a vote against the union. The coaches are telling the players that it would be a betrayal of them as coaches if they formed a union,” he said. “So the coaches are out on a limb here. If boys decide they want to have a union, and they ignore the advice of the coaches, then there’s gonna be trouble on this football team.”
Pro-union activist Fred Massey said the movement is not about getting college athletes a salary.
“Right now, this is about things like insurance. You know, playing football is a very rough sport. If you have a knee surgery or a back surgery, yeah you might recover while you’re here enrolled in school, but what about at 25 or 26, when you need another surgery, or have some arthritis?” he said.
Approval of player unionization would allow them to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association to negotiate for medical coverage for current and former players.
Northwestern, which is required by law to let the vote proceed, denies applying undue pressure on players to vote “no.” It did send a 21-page question-and-answer document to the players outlining the problems with forming a union. In it, Northwestern said it hoped unionization would not lead to player strikes in the event of a dispute — but that if it did, replacement players could be brought in to cross picket lines.
The school also said divisions could emerge between scholarship players eligible for union membership and walk-ons, coaches and staff.
“There is no question but that the presence of a union would add tension in terms of creating an `us’ versus `them’ feeling between the players it would represent and those it would not,” it said.
Northwestern did not release the document publicly, but The Associated Press obtained a copy and Paul Kennedy, a spokesman for the university’s athletic department, verified its authenticity.
“They’re looking at anything and everything to invoke fear in the players,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Associatio, a former UCLA linebacker, and a longtime critic of the NCAA. “We feel like some of the tactics are scare tactics.”
Alan K. Cubbage, the school’s vice president for university relations, dismissed that suggestion.
When Colter announced in January that he would lead the drive to unionize, helped by CAPA and the United Steelworkers, he said nearly all of his fellow teammates were behind him.
Safety Davion Fleming said his teammates have slowly begun to understand that the issues aren’t clear cut.
“When the union talk initially started, it wasn’t very clear what was going on,” said Fleming, who can’t vote because his eligibility is exhausted. “I think they didn’t understand the implications.”
Huma said Northwestern seemed to be intentionally misconstruing the facts, and said the school’s “subliminal messages” included the suggestion that a “yes” vote could throw their amateur status into question.
“No one is taking about striking,” he said. “They are trying to rattle players.”
Trevor Siemian, who is expected to replace Colter as the starting quarterback, has said he will vote against a union.
“I’ll say there’s a significant number of guys on the team who feel the same as me,” Siemian said this month.
Fleming also said he doesn’t support unionization, though he said the drive has prompted a much-needed debate about conditions for players. After weeks of both sides vying for votes, he said he detects a common sentiment among players.
“They just want this to be over — and to focus on football,” he said.
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