NLRB 'Had It Wrong' On Northwestern Players' Bid To Unionize

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Ramogi Huma, president and founder of the College Athletes Players Association, about what's next after the Northwestern football team lost its bid to unionize.

Robert Siegel
August 18, 2015

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Ramogi Huma, president and founder of the College Athletes Players Association, about what's next after the Northwestern football team lost its bid to unionize.



If you heard a giant whooshing sound yesterday and wondered what it was, it may have been the collective sigh of relief of some big college athletic programs. It would have come just after the National Labor Relations Board dismissed a petition by football players at Northwestern University, players who wanted to form a union. But the NLRB did not rule on whether the players are university employees. Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, joins me now from Los Angeles. He had backed the efforts by the players. Welcome to the program.

RAMOGI HUMA: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And remind us first, why did some of these Northwestern players, like former quarterback Kain Colter, want to form a union in the first place?

HUMA: Well, really it's to get a seat at the table for college athletes. You know, college athletes fit the criteria for an employee, yet they hadn't had the opportunity to be treated like employees and have the opportunity to form a union. And in NCAA sports, college athletes don't have a seat at the table and - which leaves them with gaps in protections.

You know, if you look at some of the traumatic brain injury issues on the NFL level - well, they exist on the college football level as well. You know, we've had players die, commit suicide. NCAA sports, unfortunately, has not taken steps to correct that and refuses to do so. So, you know, that in terms of players being stuck with sports-related medical expenses and poor graduation rates, they wanted to change the system, and it was the first step in terms of getting the leverage to do so.

SIEGEL: The NCAA, of course, insists that they are student-athletes; they're not employees. Yesterday's decision by the National Labor Relations Board was unanimous. It overturned a decision last year by a regional director that said the players were de facto employees of Northwestern. How do you understand those two very contradictory rulings, one by the regional director and the other by the entire board?

HUMA: Well, just to clarify, the board actually didn't rule on the employee status. The regional director said they are employees, and the board didn't throw that part out. What they did was say that they were not going to rule. They're not going to exercise jurisdiction. The board says this only affects Northwestern football players, but other schools and players are free to petition to unionize. But it's frustrating because this delay means a delay in the players securing the leverage that they need to protect themselves, again, from those various issues.

SIEGEL: But the board's decision also underscored a complexity in big-time college sports. Northwestern is a private institution, and the decision observed that a unionized Northwestern football team would have an unfair advantage over the rest of the Big Ten schools which are public and outside of the jurisdiction of the NLRB. That seems like it would be a sticky legal problem that's not going to go away.

HUMA: Not really, no. The board had it wrong. You know, when you have a union, you still have to abide by NCAA rules. Right now, without a union, Northwestern, if it chose to, could treat its players better. It could treat its players the best among the Big Ten schools. It could provide opportunities for grad school. It could reduce traumatic brain injury risk by reducing contact in practices. But it doesn't break NCAA rules.

And all the other schools in the Big Ten are free to match what Northwestern would do with or without a union. So the board had it wrong, and I don't think the board understands college sports as well as it thinks it does. And so it's also frustrating to see the board point to some of these arguments as reasons they denied players equal protection under the law.

SIEGEL: The Big Ten, the conference that Northwestern plays in, did announce last year that it plans to improve medical insurance and guarantee multiyear scholarships. Do you see those as points of progress that have really been brought about under the pressure of the Northwestern suit?

HUMA: Oh, there's no question. You know, and actually the Pac-12, for instance, the presidents got together and said that they needed to take these various steps that the players are calling for. And within, you know, a short period of time, the conference has begun to move towards those ends. And the board pointed to that. They said well, you know, let's let NCAA sports see what they can do. They've made some recent progress.

But the irony is that the progress was made because players had that leverage, because players signed union cards. And now the board has basically stripped the players of that leverage for the time being, so we'll see soon enough how serious NCAA sports is in terms of maintaining this progress.

SIEGEL: That's Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association. Thanks for talking with us.

HUMA: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And we were talking about the decision by the National Labor Relations Board yesterday, dismissing a petition for college football players to unionize.