MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you are a sports fan, then your attention is probably turned to the New York-New Jersey area for this Sunday's Super Bowl. But there was big news in the world of college football this week - players at Northwestern University are trying to form a union. They have submitted paperwork to the National Labor Relations Board to do just that. So we're joined now by two men at the center of the story. Kain Colter is a senior at Northwestern. He played quarterback there for four years. He's finishing up his senior year of studies. He's with us by phone. Thank you for joining us.
KAIN COLTER: Thank you for having me on.
MARTIN: Also with us, Ramogi Huma. He is president of the National College Players Association, which is representing the players with an assist for the United Steelworkers Union. And Romogi Huma is also a former linebacker for UCLA. And he's also with us now. Thank you so much for joining us as well.
RAMOGI HUMA: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you, Ramogi. I wanted to say - I'd like to ask how you got this idea. I understand that this started percolating with you when a teammate of yours at UCLA was punished for accepting groceries?
HUMA: Yeah, that's right. It was Donnie Edwards, and he's an All-American linebacker. I was actually backing him up at the time. And he was on a radio show similar to this talking about how grateful he was for his opportunity, but that for some reason his scholarship didn't cover basic necessities, and he didn't have any food in his refrigerator. So he goes back to his apartment and finds groceries on his doorstep, and he took them in.
And somehow the NCAA found out, and when they found out they suspended him. Meanwhile, they were selling his jersey in the stores, and it just didn't seem right. Immediately, I realized we didn't have a voice and we didn't have a say in this. Soon after, I started a student group, which turned into a nonprofit that, since then, over 17,000 current and former players have joined to advocate for college athlete's rights.
MARTIN: What would a union do for you?
HUMA: Well, I think it brings players to the table. You know, right now, over the last 10 years, you know, we've actually been able to pass laws, back some lawsuits, launch intense public pressure campaigns, but none of it gives players the leverage for comprehensive reform. You know, these are players who, during games if they're injured, the schools can still choose to stick them with the medical expenses - as current players or former players.
And they can lose their scholarships when they're injured. Obviously, graduation rates between football and basketball players hover around 50 percent, which is unacceptable. And, you know, one of the most disturbing things is the NCAA's stance on concussions. The NCAA has been running from this issue and has refused to adopt any of the proactive measures that the NFLPA has been able to negotiate with the NFL. And so over the years, it's become evident that unless players have a seat at the table, they're never going to have comprehensive reform and basic protections.
MARTIN: Kain Colter, why does this idea appeal to you? And do you think that among your teammates - does this idea resonate?
COLTER: You know, I think it resonates with all student athletes across the nation. You know, throughout your time there, you have certain experiences that kind of show you the pitfalls of the NCAA system right now. And you're able to see some of the injustices. And, you know, for me, it's just something - I have the ability, you know, I have the opportunity to try and protect, you know, my current players and the future generations to come. And deep down in my heart and in a lot of people's hearts, you know, we know this is the right thing to do. It's time for a change.
MARTIN: Your eligibility to form a union would hinge on the question of whether you are determined to be an employee.
MARTIN: Do you think you are an employee?
COLTER: Yes, and we're taking a stand. And right now we're paid in the form of a scholarship and stipend checks. And that payment is based upon us providing a service to the university, which is an athletic service.
MARTIN: Ramogi, what about you? What - why do you think that these student athletes are in fact employees?
HUMA: I think Kain points out a lot of the issues that the National Labor Relations Board is going to be looking at. You know, are they compensated? What's their primary purpose on campus? They were recruited there because they could play ball. The NCAA itself did a study and found that these players are spending 40 hours a week in their sport alone. These are some of the things they'll be looking at. And the players are now accurately describing this as pay for play and saying that, yes, this equals employment status.
MARTIN: The NCAA - what we - needless to say, we asked them for their perspective and they gave us a statement. It was issued under Donald Remy's name, who's the NCAA's chief legal officer. And the statement reads, in part, this union-backed attempt to turn student athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college and education. Student athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.
We stand for all student athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize. So, Ramogi, what about that? I mean, is your intention to allow all student athletes to participate in this effort, but is it mainly aimed at those whose sports are particularly demanding and have a high rate of injury, which football does?
HUMA: This is actually a petition to get a definition by the people who actually define who is an employee and who is not. The NCAA has no authority to try to define who an employee is and who is not an employee - that's up to the National Labor Relations Board. That's their job. And that's why the players have brought this case to them. And in terms of players, you know, players of all sports, they all deserve basic protections.
MARTIN: Kain, can I ask you - like, was there a particular moment of clarity for you in this that made you feel this was the right approach?
COLTER: I was actually taking a class at Northwestern, it was a Modern Workplace class and we were just going over the history of the worker and going over different unions throughout history to professional sports unions, and my teacher, he asked me, you know, why don't college athletes have a union? You guys, you know, are obviously generating a lot of money, and you need basic protections. And, you know, from that point on, it kind of just made sense.
MARTIN: Ramogi, what about you? What - I would particularly like to hear you explicitly address the NCAA's argument that this is an attempt to professionalize or it's focused on just a very few athletes who tend to have professional prospects and it doesn't really - it really undermines kind of the basic compact between the student athlete and the educational institution. Could you just specifically address that?
HUMA: Back in the '50s, the NCAA chose to pay their players. The modern day architect of NCAA, Walter Byers, he described the process in a book and he said that the schools realized they were going to pay these players, they might be subject to workers' comp, this might turn players into employees. They did it anyway. They decided to try to skirt labor laws by inventing terms like student athlete and wrapping this whole idea of amateurism around this. So it's very dishonest and deceptive to ignore the origin of this thing. The NCAA, the - you know, the people who are making these statements, they understand fully what they're doing.
MARTIN: You're saying that the bottom line is if there is a conflict between the academic experience and the athletic experience, that the athletic experience has the priority.
HUMA: That's one of the strongest elements. You know, when you're setting up your schedule, they tell you when you can and can't take classes. You have to wrap your academic schedule around your athletic schedule. Some guys can't even major in certain things they want to major in. It's very clear what's going on here. So we're going to win this thing. It's not going to happen tomorrow, it's going to be down the line, but we're on the right side of this argument.
And the NCAA, the reason why they're holding onto this so hard is because they have a conflict of interest. If players actually - if their employee status is affirmed, some of this money that's coming in, these billion dollars-plus in brand new TV revenue, they're actually going to have to direct to protect these players. And they don't want that because historically, all this new money that's come in, goes directly into their pocket. So they have a lot to lose in terms of whether or not this question is answered fairly and by a third-party because, you know, for the last hundred years they've been able to define things how they want it and no one has questioned it. But that time is gone.
MARTIN: Kain Colter, final question to you - and if you don't mind my asking - clearly based on your abilities, people would be looking at you for the NFL Draft. And I was wondering if you are concerned that your activism in this area will hurt you.
COLTER: Not at all. You know, I think that I can make this into a positive thing. You know, if anyone accused me of being a leader and looking out for my teammates, then I'm guilty. I think that, you know, with this I'm proving my loyalty and I'm proving, you know, my leadership capabilities, and I hope that NFL teams can see that.
MARTIN: What would you say to those who would argue that it's your choice to play this sport and if you find the conditions not pleasing to you, you just could not do it?
COLTER: That's a ridiculous argument. And to say that the answer is to quit football just because you have a choice - you know, if the system is broken you just don't quit. You know, you need to fix the thing.
MARTIN: Ramogi, final thought from you?
HUMA: Playing an NCAA sport shouldn't require young men and women to forfeit their rights at the university gate. That's an absurd premise.
MARTIN: Ramogi Huma is a former college football player, as is Kain Colter. Ramogi played at UCLA. Kain Colter played at Northwestern University, where he's finishing up for his degree. They are both trying to help unionize players at Northwestern University. And we reached them both by phone. Thank you both so much for speaking to us.
COLTER: Thanks for having me.
HUMA: All right, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.