Pressure builds as Northwestern football team union vote nears

Story highlights

Northwestern University football players vote Friday on whether to unionize

There is some doubt a majority will vote for it, though support was strong initially

Many athletes, coaches, college presidents and others say a union is a bad idea

Supporters say athletes, who generate huge money for schools, deserve protections

CNN  — 

No matter what the ballots say, Friday will be historic for college sports.

By noon, members of Northwestern University’s football team will have cast the ballots that will decide whether they will form a workers union and start demanding more rights.

It’s a massive step toward changing the longstanding model of the NCAA, and the pressure has been mounting. There is some doubt that a majority will vote for it – even though there initially seemed to be a lot of support on the team.

How they vote won’t be immediately known, since on Thursday the National Labor Relations Board granted Northwestern’s request to review a regional NLRB director’s decision that the players are employees of the university. It could be months before that review takes place and the votes won’t be made public until that happens.

Since the initial signatures were acquired and the petition was filed in January, the two main forces behind the union push – National College Players Association President Ramogi Huma and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter – went on a whirlwind tour meeting with lawmakers and lobbyists and speaking publicly about the push.

They became especially vocal in February when Peter Sun Ohr, NLRB regional director in Chicago, ruled in their favor. Ohr agreed with their argument that the athletes are employees of the university who make money for their employer and are compensated with an education. The Chicago director agreed with them on almost every point they made at the hearing – the most important being a recognition that athletes spend 40 to 50 hours a week focused on football – well more than the maximum 20 that is allowed by the NCAA.

But with that win came an influx of dissent from all directions.

Former and current players, high-profile coaches, lawyers, lawmakers, college presidents, even some vocal NCAA reform advocates publicly said they didn’t think a union was a good idea.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who initially tweeted in support of his former starting quarterback initiative, met with the current teammates and told them he didn’t think a union was in their best interest. Two of the team’s top leaders – current quarterback Trevor Siemian and running back Venric Mark – backed their coach and publicly said they would not be voting in favor of unionizing.

“I just hope the NCAA does understand some things do need to change,” Mark told reporters after a spring practice on April 19, “but we do not need a third party to come in between us and the coaches.”

A majority of the players who decide to cast a vote must vote in favor of the union for it to be successful.

Meanwhile, today, the NCAA appears to be trying to answer some of the concerns of the reform advocates by proposing changes that would give the five power conferences – Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific-12 – more options in how they treat athletes.

Among many proposed changes, the NCAA may consider allowing schools to increase scholarships to cover the cost of living, and not just the cost of tuition, for athletes.

This all comes weeks after a class-action lawsuit filed by current players who want the NCAA compensation cap to be erased, and more than a month before trial is set to begin in the case of former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon lawsuit’s against the NCAA. O’Bannon is suing on behalf of current football and men’s basketball players, and is seeking to get them a share of the millions that the NCAA makes off of their likenesses.