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Northwestern football team takes first step in forming college players union

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
NCAA Football: Michigan at Northwestern
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Nov 16, 2013; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter (2) wears the wounded warrior uniform before the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Ryan Field. (David Banks-USA TODAY Sports)

As Kain Colter prepared for his third season as Northwestern's starting quarterback last summer, he took a class at the Evanston, Ill., school called "Modern Workplace."

In it, he studied unions across history, including the current ones involved in professional sports. That's when the instructor noted, according to Colter, "I can't believe that student-athletes do not have a players union."

The line hit Colter hard. College sports were a part of the Denver native's life. Here he was at exclusive Northwestern, about to become a two-time team captain in the Big Ten while developing into an NFL prospect. Yet, he long ago came to believe the NCAA's rules of amateurism were "unjust." There was something wrong, he thought, with players making billions of dollars for colleges and universities, yet having little to no say on how their sports were run and how the players were protected – let alone having any input as to where all the money went.

In a violent, dangerous and very profitable business, the players had no voice, either individual or collective. That core conflict is what has caused labor unions to form across history in all sorts of industries.

On Tuesday, Colter took a big – and potentially historic – step toward possibly changing the system. His grassroots organizational work resulted in the start of a college players union.

Paperwork signed by what union organizers say represents the majority of the current Wildcats football team was submitted Tuesday to the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board. Cards filled out by individual players declared they wished to be represented by the newly formed College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) against what they deem their employer, Northwestern University.

CAPA is backed by the United Steelworkers, who had their international president, Leo Gerard, and national political director, Tim Waters, in Chicago to assist in the process. It is running in conjunction with the National College Players Association, a once small advocacy outfit from California operated for years by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma.

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Kain Colter said he was inspired by a class he took that studied the role of unions. (USA Today)

Colter found out about the NCPA when researching for the "Modern Workplace" class. He contacted Huma, and the two began a conversation. It turned out to be a perfect match.

This is just the first step, and it comes with a long road ahead and no guarantee of success.

Yet the act is significant, and the latest in a rush of challenges – both legal and political – to the basic concept of amateurism that is the bedrock of the NCAA. Before anyone brushes off the possibility of a college athlete's union as farcical and farfetched, there was a time when professional sports owners said the same thing about the likelihood of organized labor in their leagues.

"The No. 1 thing that I want to accomplish is to finally give athletes a true voice," Colter told Yahoo Sports. "They need to finally have a seat at the table when rules and regulations are determined. They need an entity in place that can negotiate on the players' behalf and have their best interests in mind."

Tuesday's development does not automatically create a players union in college sports or even guarantee that one will eventually form. CAPA is looking to represent only football and men's basketball players initially, according to Huma – although further expansion is possible.

Registering with the labor relation board starts a process. Northwestern must respond to whether it wishes to recognize the union. The school likely will follow NCAA precedent and deny the players are employees at all. Colleges prefer to classify them as "student-athletes."

School administrators and coaches, according to Colter, were unaware of the union organizing as of Tuesday morning, when he planned to tell them personally. As such, neither the school nor the NCAA was initially available for comment.

If Northwestern rejects the union, the local labor board will hold a hearing on the matter, listen to both sides and make a determination on who is correct. In rough terms, the debate is over whether the players really are "student-athletes" or whether they're employees compensated by scholarships, room, board and other items.

No matter who wins, one side can appeal to the National Labor Relations Board. And no matter who wins that time, the loser can take the ruling to the Federal Courts, which has numerous layers and appeals processes.

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Northwestern players submitted paperwork in hope of being represented by the College Athletes Players Association. …

Even if the union at Northwestern ends up getting recognized, it would apply to athletes at only private NCAA institutions eligible for membership. Players at public schools would still have to take the case to their individual state boards.

So don't look for the union label anytime soon. This will be a war of attrition.

Huma is well aware of that, and isn't jumping into this fray on a whim. He wants to win. A Bruins linebacker in the mid-1990s, Huma became disillusioned with the NCAA when he saw players' monthly food allotment money routinely run out, only to have All-American teammate Donnie Edwards get suspended for accepting free groceries he needed.

He founded the NCPA to argue for the players and eventually found an ally in the gritty Steelworkers. This represents the group's boldest move yet. The United Steelworkers (USW) will provide CAPA with a legal team well versed in labor law that is experienced and has plenty of financial support for the fight ahead.

Huma notes that the NCAA's business model relies on the fact it can set the rules for compensation, support, medical resources as well as the amount of practice and games. It's a one-way street, a take-it-or-leave-it deal.

While professional sports unions generally rise to fan consciousness only during strikes or lockouts that often center on money, there are myriad other less divisive and important issues they can handle.

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Former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma is the president of the National College Players Association.

The NFL Players Association, for example, was able to collectively bargain a limit on the amount of full-contact practices players must go through on a weekly basis and argue for specifics on off-season workouts. College football players, however, have no such ability to even ask for such a concession. Out of fear of angering coaches, they rarely speak up individually.

"We're trying to give college athletes a seat at the table," Huma told Yahoo Sports. "All rules are imposed on them by the NCAA. And every dollar the NCAA is able to deny the players goes to their salaries."

Said Colter: "Money is far from priority No. 1 on our list of goals. The health of the players is No. 1. Right now the NCAA does not require or guarantee that any university or institution covers any sports-related medical expenses. Student-athletes should never have to worry about if their sports-related medical bills are taken care of."

Colter finished his career at Northwestern after throwing for more than 5,000 yards and accounting for 50 touchdowns. He's now preparing for the NFL draft after returning from the Senior Bowl, and is trying to complete his studies in Evanston.

Being the front man on this push will bring backlash, and the issues are no longer his issues, but Colter said he couldn't leave college football quietly. Someone had to do something, he figured. It was long past time.

"This issue is a lot bigger than any individual," Colter said. "This has the potential to help our peers and future generations to come. We have the opportunity to leave collegiate sports better off than when we found it. People will not always agree with our actions, but deep down I know it is the right thing to do."

Time, money, resolve and the federal courts will eventually determine whether college athletes will gain organized representation.

It's possible, however, that a development that could potentially change so much about college sports was sparked when a star quarterback sat in a summer class, learning from his teacher. It's just the kind of scene the NCAA might use to film one of its public-relations commercials.

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