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NCAA, Northwestern have very different responses to player union movement

The NCAA frames the issue as one of whether college players are employees, and the school praises the athletes for their initiative while disagreeing with their tactics.

Eric Francis

The NCAA issued an official response Tuesday afternoon to the news that former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is leading the charge to establish a players' union in college athletics. Colter is working with the National College Players Association, which filed a petition on behalf of Northwestern players to the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago.

In a statement, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy disagreed with the idea that college athletes could be considered labor. The full remarks from Remy:

This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.

Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.

Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.

In light of that, it should be noted that this movement to unionize is not motivated by a desire for a pay-for-play system -- neither Colter nor the NCPA have broached that subject yet. The larger aim is to give athletes a say in NCAA governance, including on matters like medical care and scholarship restrictions.

"Right now the NCAA is like a dictatorship," Colter said. "No one represents us in negotiations. The only way things are going to change is if players have a union."

Northwestern also issued a statement, lauding the students involved for their choice to stand up for college athletes while disagreeing with their course of action.

In a portion of the statement, the school notes that it "believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns."

Player safety is perhaps the most significant issue that Colter and the NCPA would like to address. The topic has become an increasingly prominent story at all levels of football as more and more research into the effects of concussions gets published. The NCAA is already facing a lawsuit on the concussion issue, and it also has an ongoing battle in the Ed O'Bannon suit over compensation for the use of players' likenesses.

A plaintiff in the O'Bannon suit, Arizona's Jake Smith, weighed in Tuesday to the NCAA's response to the labor development.

Remy and the NCAA have been adamant that they are not exploiting athletes. That subject will continue to be debated on all sides until the O'Bannon suit and the labor movement out of Northwestern are resolved. It'll be a while, so you may want to grab a chair.

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