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Northwestern Football Players Want To Unionize: Is That OK?

Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who finished his college career last season, is the spokesman for the players' effort to unionize.
John Mersits
Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who finished his college career last season, is the spokesman for the players' effort to unionize.

Even during a week when the NFL's Super Bowl is dominating sports pages and sports talk shows, college football is back in the headlines because players at Northwestern University have voted to form a union.

As NPR's David Schaper said on Morning Edition, the players "argue they're not just students who play sports, but employees who work more than 40 hours a week for the university, training, practicing and playing games that bring millions in revenue to the school." The scholarships that many receive don't fully reflect their value to the school, the players argue. So, they say they should be able to bargain collectively.

The NCAA objects, saying that "this union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education." writes that the players "face significant and obvious legal obstacles in their quest to form a union. A series of court decisions in several states over the past 30 years has resulted in a generally accepted rule that college athletes are not employees, cannot collect workers' compensation for injuries and cannot form a union under American labor law."

But the Northwestern players' move comes about three months after players at Grambling State University refused to play a game because they were upset about conditions at their training facilities. It also follows last season's silent expressions of support for the idea that players should be sharing more in college football's success — athletes on several teams wore "All Players United" wristbands. "Powerful winds of change" are blowing across college sports, ESPN says.

The players' push is for "better health benefits, better treatment of concussions and future medical treatment," adds ESPN, and even if unionization isn't allowed anytime soon, those issues are now front-and-center.

This seems like a good topic for a question.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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