EVANSTON, Ill. — In a historic vote, Northwestern University football players cast secret ballots Friday on whether to form the nation’s first union for college athletes — a decision that could change the landscape of American amateur sports.
"You got to give the people what they want!" one of the players shouted at reporters, who were kept away from the players as they entered a campus building to vote. Some waved and another showed off some dance moves.
The results of the closely watched vote will not be known for some time. After two rounds of voting on this 19,000-student campus, the ballot boxes were sealed and will remain so for weeks, months, perhaps even years as the university challenges the effort to unionize the team.
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Still, some of those behind the push were already celebrating, saying that even if a union is voted down, the campaign has the power to change things.
"We’re one step closer to a world where college athletes are not stuck with sports-related medical bills, do not lose their scholarships when they are injured, are not subject to unnecessary brain trauma and are given better opportunities to complete their degree," said former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who helped lead the effort with the help of the United Steelworkers.
The full National Labor Relations Board has agreed to hear the Northwestern’s appeal of a regional director’s March ruling that the players are university employees and thus can unionize. Ballots will remain impounded until that process is finished, and perhaps until after any court fight that might follow a decision.
Supporters say a union would help athletes obtain better compensation, medical care for injuries and other benefits. One day before the vote, the NCAA endorsed a plan that would give big schools like Northwestern much more autonomy to address such issues for its athletes.
None of the players participating in the voting stopped to talk with reporters, but the excitement of some was evident as they waved or thrust their arms into the air in view of TV news cameras. Sophomore Michael Odom, 20, said he quit the team a couple months ago because the demands of playing football were detracting from his studies for a journalism degree. Though he wasn’t eligible to vote, he called a union "long overdue" and had heard from his former teammates they felt pressured to vote against it.
"I don’t know if intimidation is the word I’d use. I think that’s a little strong. I know a lot of my teammates have been influenced by former players as well as coaches and officials at the university," Odom said, adding that parents got emails from university officials urging them to press their children to vote no.
"It seems like things are kind of leaning toward `no,’" he said of the overall vote. "I think a lot of them have been successfully talked out of voting yes."
Last month’s decision by NLRB’s regional director sent shockwaves through college sports, prompting criticism from the NCAA, Northwestern and athletic departments nationwide. While the ruling would apply only to private universities — they are subject to federal labor law while public schools are under state law — many saw the decision as a first step toward the end of the traditional "student-athlete" era.
Seventy-six scholarship football players were eligible to cast ballots. The rules under which the ballots were impounded don’t even allow them to be counted, so it was not known how many actually voted.
Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent the players at the bargaining table if the pro-union side prevails, said just having the vote take place was a victory.
"The NCAA cannot vacate this moment in history and its implications for the future," he said.
Donald Remy, chief legal officer for the NCAA, said the organization remained steadfast that college athletes are not employees.
"Whatever concerns or issues one may have with college athletics, turning student-athletes into employees and changing the relationship between students and their universities is certainly not the answer," he said. "For nearly three years, NCAA member schools have worked on specific proposals designed to enhance the student-athlete experience and support their success in the classroom, on the field and in life."
Huma, a former UCLA linebacker, had accused the university of using scare tactics to thwart the effort. Northwestern sent a 21-page question-and-answer document to the players outlining the problems it sees 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.
Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage denied any suggestion that the university engaged in an unfair campaign of intimidation, saying the school was careful to stick to NLRB guidelines while getting across its position.
Cubbage noted that Northwestern already offers its football players four-year scholarships and medical benefits that are extended to cover players for a year after they’ve left the team and sometimes longer.
"We are truly serious about continuing the conversation," he said. "Regardless of what happened today on the vote, our intention is that — or our hope certainly is — that Northwestern is going to be a leader in discussing those issues that have come to the forefront."