CHICAGO – It’s impossible to know precisely where the movement to unionize college athletes will go from here.
On Tuesday, it started in full force.
Perhaps future college athletes will pass by this place – Plaza Ballroom B at the Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker Drive – some day when they’re walking along the Chicago River. They won’t think to step inside, to appreciate the beige walls or the floor-to-ceiling windows or the carpet with its patterns of squares and ovals.
Yet this room has a good chance to become part of history.
Because the players’ movement to unionize, which followed Tuesday’s creation of the College Athletes Players Association, is only going to strengthen as more athletes from around the country step forward and embrace the cause.
It’s only going to gain momentum as groups such as the NFL Players Association add their support to a mission that already has the public, powerful, organized backing of the United Steelworkers.
It’s only going to harden with every story about a college football player who has to pay his own medical bills while his coach and athletic director stuff their pockets.
Victories will take time. Setbacks are inevitable. But, ultimately, the players will win.
What they will win, specifically, remains to be seen. It won’t necessarily be stipends or paychecks. It could be increased medical coverage, better scholarship protection, or reduced contact during practice as part of comprehensive concussion reform.
What the NCAA will lose, specifically, remains to be seen. It won’t necessarily be TV or licensing deals. But there is a reason the powerful organization behind a multibillion dollar industry wants to fight to preserve the status quo.
When the players win, they’ll owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kain Colter, who until a couple of months ago was the starting quarterback on the Northwestern Wildcats. They’ll also owe a big thank you to the entire Wildcats football team – the overwhelming majority of the team, at least – that signed cards supporting a petition filed by CAPA with the National Labor Relations Board.
Colter is the perfect player to launch the movement – a star, but not too big of a star, who played in a big-city market and could end up on an NFL roster next autumn. The Wildcats are the perfect team to serve as a backdrop – players at a school that boasts terrific graduation rates and, by all accounts, takes good care of its athletes.
“This action isn’t out of any mistreatment from Northwestern,” said Colter, a two-year co-captain with the Wildcats. “A lot of times, Northwestern does great things.
“But that’s not the norm. This is trying to protect everybody and the future generations to come.”
This is about the bigger picture, which isn’t always pretty across college sports.
At least for now, the fight will start with college football and basketball players because their cases present the strongest argument, said Ramogi Huma, the inaugural president of CAPA. Huma, who played football at UCLA, said he has fought for college athletes’ rights since the NCAA suspended All-American teammate Donnie Edwards in 1995 for accepting a bag of groceries when he had no food.
“Meanwhile,” Huma said, “UCLA was selling his jersey in stores.”
As Huma spoke, United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard and political director Tim Waters watched from a few feet away. They will provide the muscle as CAPA takes its first step in arguing that Northwestern football players are employees and as such are entitled to labor rights and representation.
From there – if all goes well – CAPA will broaden and intensify its mission.
Colter smiled as he sat beside Huma, Gerard and Waters at a long, narrow table in front of 10 TV cameras and more than three-dozen reporters. If the Steelworkers provided the muscle of the movement, then Colter served as its face.
“I’m honored to be the face of this,” Colter said as microphones hummed and cameras snapped. “I’m honored to try to change college football for the better.”
Changes are coming.
Between these beige walls is where it started.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.