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Northwestern quarterback says 'confident' of unionization vote

Northwestern University fans cheer the Wildcats in their game against Ohio State University. (Northwestern.edu)
Northwestern University fans cheer the Wildcats in their game against Ohio State University. (Northwestern.edu)

By Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Northwestern University quarterback who is behind a push to unionize the school's football team said on Thursday he is "very confident" that his teammates will vote on April 25 to join the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).

Kain Colter, a senior at Northwestern, appeared on a panel and took questions in Washington, D.C., along with CAPA co-founder Ramogi Huma, a former University of California-Los Angeles football player who now advocates for student athletes.

The two met earlier in the week with congressional lawmakers to talk about the Northwestern players' novel effort to form what could be the first labor union for U.S. college athletes.

"The hard part is over," Colter said of the upcoming vote, noting most of his teammates had signed pledge cards, which triggered the election.

"The key thing is these players aren't voting for themselves ... they're voting for future generations," he added.

The drive that Colter and Huma are heading has triggered a national debate about college athletes and their treatment by schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), with some condemning the union effort and others praising it.

It began late last month when a regional director with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said the Northwestern football players were effectively employees of the school and could therefore vote on whether to unionize.

The players spend 40 to 50 hours a week during the regular season practicing, playing and traveling to games, and each get scholarships worth about $61,000 per year, the NLRB said.

APPEAL DUE NEXT WEEK

The school has said it will appeal the regional director's decision before the full, five-member board in Washington, D.C. That appeal is due by April 9 and could convince the board to decide to postpone the vote.

Speaking on a Wednesday panel hosted by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy organization, Huma stressed that CAPA is not seeking salaries for college athletes.

Improved safety protections, scholarships covering the full cost of attendance and ongoing medical coverage for sports-related injuries are priorities of the recently created labor group, he said.

The lawmakers they met with were very supportive, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, Huma said.

"He'll do anything he can to help," Huma said.

'LIGHT BULB' MOMENT

Both Huma and Colter described the "light bulb" moment when they knew they wanted to work to improve conditions for college athletes.

For Huma, it was when he was playing at UCLA in the mid-1990s. A teammate said on a radio program that he could not afford to buy food. When the teammate arrived home, there was a bag of groceries on his doorstep. The NCAA, which oversees college sports programs, suspended him for accepting a prohibited gift.

At that point in the season, Huma himself had lost 10 pounds (4.5 kg), going from four to five meals a day while living with his parents to a three-meal-per-day meal plan at UCLA, he said.

Colter, whose uncle and father played college sports, said he grew up aware of the challenges elite student athletes face. He was looking for a way to give students a voice, and contacted Huma.

"I was given an opportunity to make a change," Colter said.

The NCAA has indicated it will throw its weight behind defending the idea that college athletes are students, not employees. The organization is facing multiple lawsuits challenging its rules and regulations that prohibit student players from receiving sports-linked revenue.

"We do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college," NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy said in a statement late last month.

(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh)

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