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Northwestern coach urges players to vote against unionization

By Chandrika Narayan and Sara Ganim, CNN
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Sun April 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Quarterback and a running back are also opposed to unionization
  • Coach Pat Fitzgerald: "I believe it's in their best interests to vote no"
  • Northwestern University to appeal decision allowing players to unionize
  • National Labor Relations Board office rules for unionization

(CNN) -- Northwestern University football coach Pat Fitzgerald said Saturday he does not believe his players should unionize, even though the players won that right in court last month.

Players will vote on April 25 whether to form a union.

Fitzgerald spoke to his team Saturday, outlining the reasons why he thinks they should vote against the measure.

"I believe it's in their best interests to vote no," Fitzgerald said Saturday, speaking to reporters after a team practice.

"With the research that I've done, I'm going to stick to the facts and I'm going to do everything in my power to educate our guys. Our university is going to do that, to give them all the resources that they need to get the facts."

Northwestern football players want union

Two of the team's most visible players, quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark, backed their coach.

"I think at this university I'm really fortunate to be in the position I'm in. I don't think union is the answer for my team, or my university," Siemian said. "I've been treated unbelievably, far exceeding my expectations."

Siemian thinks a push to unionize may hurt their No. 1 goal, which is to win a Big Ten championship.

"I just hope the NCAA does understand some things do need to change," Mark said. "But we do not need a third party to come in between us and the coaches," he said.

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board office in Chicago ruled that players are employees of the school and have the right to unionize after former quarterback Kain Colter testified about the rigorous demands of being a Division I football player.

Read the board's ruling (PDF)

The board's decision indicates that there was enough evidence presented that the athletes are employees of the university -- getting paid in the form of scholarships, working between 20 and 50 hours per week and generating millions of dollars for their institutions.

The athletes have said they're seeking better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships and the possibility of being paid.

Northwestern is appealing the ruling to the national NLRB office.

The university is sticking to the century-old collegiate athletics stance: that student-athletes are not university employees but "students, first and foremost."

"Northwestern considers its students who participate in NCAA Division I sports, including those who receive athletic scholarships, to be students, first and foremost," Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations, said in a statement last month. "We believe that participation in athletic events is part of the overall educational experience for those students, not a separate activity."

Richard Epstein, a labor law professor at New York University, said the ruling has "vast implications for the structure of the sport, if upheld."

But he noted an appeal would likely take years to resolve.

The NCAA said that while it wasn't party to the proceeding, it was "disappointed" with the board's ruling and disagreed "with the notion that student-athletes are employees."

NCAA President Mark Emmert criticized the idea of unionization in a news conference Sunday.

"To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems," Emmert said. "It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics."

On Saturday, Fitzgerald spoke about his experience at Northwestern, covering 18 years, to make his case.

"Right now, we have great protocols in place, and we haven't been forced to do that by any third party," Fitzgerald said. "I know our guys trust me."

He said he had always been an advocate of change for student-athletes, if it had a positive impact.

"We have to educate them to help them understand the whole aspect of what this decision is... that's what their parents entrusted us to do... and we'll continue to work with them to do that," Fitzgerald said.

Thursday, while speaking at the Aspen Institute about his efforts to unionize, Colter addressed the dissent on the team.

"I think it's tough when you have some criticism that they've got. Some people came down, hollered on, and even people within the Northwestern alumni base. That's obviously tough, but I think they are strong and they still believe in the issue," Colter said.

Ramogi Huma, who as head of the College Athletes Players Association is a driving force behind the move to unionize, couldn't be reached for comment.

He has said the Chicago NLRB ruling would have national implications, but he wouldn't talk about whether teams at other schools were planning to hold union votes as well.

CNN's Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.

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