WASHINGTON – Members of a group trying to unionize college athletes sought out potential congressional allies Wednesday as they braced for an appeal of a ruling that said full scholarship athletes at Northwestern University are employees who have the right to form a union.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, the face of a movement to give college athletes the right to unionize, and Ramogi Huma, the founder and president of the National College Players Association, had meetings scheduled with lawmakers over a two-day period.
"The goal is to make athletes have a seat at the table. Health and safety of athletes is the concern, especially to reduce the risk of brain trauma," Huma said outside the Capitol before heading to a meeting with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Among the others they expected to meet with were Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and Labor Committee; Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., whose district includes Northwestern; Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif.
They intended to make clear one of their chief concerns, providing for athletes' medical needs. Huma said the group also was concerned that the NCAA would lobby Congress to prohibit unionizing by college athletes.
"We want to make sure they have an opportunity to hear from us directly," Huma said.
Stacey Osburn, director of public and media relations for the NCAA, said in a statement that Huma's concern was "unwarranted." A Northwestern official has said that the students were not employees and that unionization and collective bargaining were not the appropriate methods to address their concerns.
"The law is fairly clear and consistent with Northwestern's position, so the NCAA has made no contacts with anyone in Congress attempting to ban the unionization of student-athletes," Osburn said.
Colter, however, called the decision a "strong ruling" and predicted it "will be hard to overturn."
Last week's ruling by a regional National Labor Relations Board director in Chicago said Northwestern football players on full scholarships are employees of the university and have the right to form a union and bargain collectively.
While the athletes' effort has generated some support among Democrats, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the White House have declined to comment on the ruling. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. — two lawmakers influential on education and labor issues — came out against it.
The university has said it would file a request for the full board in Washington to review the decision. It has until April 9 to do so.
The federal agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities, so the push to unionize athletes has been primarily targeted toward private schools such as Northwestern.
Opponents say giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize could hurt college sports and higher education in numerous ways.