EVANSTON, Ill. — In a historic vote, Northwestern 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 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 dance moves.
The results of the vote will not be known for some time. After two rounds of voting, 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.
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 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 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 cameras. Sophomore Michael Odom, 20, said he quit the team a couple of 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.
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.