Exclusive: On college unions, NCAA ‘made their best argument and lost’

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter has led the players' push for the right to unionize.

David Banks/Getty Images

Ramogi Huma was in his office in Riverside, Calif., Wednesday when news out of Chicago came: For the first time, the National Labor Relations Board determined college athletes are employees.

“Right now, this sets a very clear precedent,” Huma, president of the newly formed College Athletes Players Association, said in a phone interview with FOXSports.com. “It wasn’t even close – we won every point.”

In Chicago, Peter Ohr, a regional director of the NLRB, ruled that college athletes should be considered employees under federal law, granting them the ability to unionize, after hearing the arguments of union lawyers that the players are a key cog of a commercial enterprise that drives extraordinary profits on the basis of their labor.

In a statement, Northwestern University reiterated it disagrees that college athletes are employees and stated its intent to appeal:

"Northwestern University is disappointed by today’s ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board finding that Northwestern University’s football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees and directing that a secret ballot election be held to determine whether the football players should be represented by the College Athletes Players Association for purposes of collective bargaining with Northwestern University.

"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes. Northwestern plans to appeal today’s decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The University will continue to explore all of its legal options in regard to this issue."

As Huma told FOX Sports, this doesn’t mean the players can begin collective bargaining at this instant. Because of the legal process that will now unfold, it likely will be a significant amount of time until any tangible change is seen — but it does give players the platform for what comes next.


“They can now fight for protections,” Huma said. “Their medical expenses aren’t covered, so now they (can be). They can negotiate provisions for brain trauma in contact sports. The NCAA doesn’t want to address that issue, and this is the first step in (forcing it).”

In addition to those protections, Huma said, players intend to address “hostage rules” — meaning, their ability to transfer to another school without restriction, which isn’t currently the case.

At the moment, coaches have the ability to dictate which schools a player can or can’t transfer to, and unless otherwise exempted, a player must sit out a season after transferring to a new school.

Then, of course, there’s the money and issue of compensating players. A proposal Huma outlined to FOX Sports would not pay players annual salaries or compensate them during their four years of eligibility, but rather ensure they received a sum of money after they were done playing.

“A trust fund can be established where a percentage of the revenues are put away for players,” Huma said. “It’s a lump of money there for players after they graduate, or if they haven’t graduated in four years, they can use (some of those funds) to finish up school.”


For now, the players sit on the side of victory and wait for the NCAA’s appeal to be heard in Washington, D.C. The NCAA will continue to beat its drum — that college athletes who receive scholarships are students, not employees — but it will be little more than the same old arguments tried on new ears.

“The NCAA’s testimony won’t be new — that’s done with,” Huma said. “They’ve made their best argument, and they lost.”

Teddy Mitrosilis writes and edits college football for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter and email him at tmitrosilis@gmail.com.