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Northwestern football players vote on union membership as NCAA structure nears change

04/25/2014 3:55 PM

04/25/2014 3:56 PM

As Northwestern football players voted Friday in Evanston, Ill., on whether to form a union, the National College Players Association advocacy group was claiming a victory without knowledge of the result.

“April 25 is another step in allowing the voices of college athletes to be heard, and this is a major victory for college athletics whatever the outcome of the vote,” read a news release from the group.

The outcome of the vote by 76 members of the Wildcats is not expected to be known soon. The ballot box was sealed after the vote.

The National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., granted Northwestern’s request to challenge the regional director’s March ruling that the Wildcats’ football players are employees and have the right to unionize. The ballots will be impounded while that plays out.

The face of the union effort is former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who has said he wants to help college athletes gain benefits such as long-term medical care for injuries.

The vote came one day after the NCAA Board of Directors proposed a new governance structure that would provide the Division I football-playing schools with the largest athletic budgets, including Northwestern, the autonomy to make changes that would provide additional benefits to athletes.

Kansas State president Kirk Schulz is a member of the NCAA executive committee that helped create the new model and insists college sports can operate without a union.

“It is important that we do a better job in providing enhanced benefits to all of our student-athletes to ensure their success in the classroom and on the field,” Schulz said in an email. “If our governance proposal is adopted which provides enhanced student benefits, I believe that unionization of student-athletes is unnecessary and detrimental to college athletics.”

At Northwestern, none of the players talked to reporters after voting, but a former player said members of the football team felt pressure from the school to vote against the union.

“I don’t know if intimidation is the word I’d use, I think that’s a little strong,” said Michael Odom, who said he quit the team a couple of months ago because it took too much time away from school work. “I know a lot of my teammates have been influenced by former players as well as coaches and officials at the university.”

In an email to the team, Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald said voting for a union could bring unknown consequences.

“Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don’t know — a third party who may or may not have the team’s best interest in mind,” Fitzgerald wrote.

Fitzgerald was prohibited against making promises to players about benefits that they would receive by voting against a union. He was allowed to answer questions, provide materials and state his views on the topic until 24 hours before the vote.

Star news services contributed to this story.

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