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ASU Football: Does Northwestern football players' intent to unionize impact Arizona State student-athletes?

A bold decision sparked by Northwestern football players could have a lasting impact throughout college athletics.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is leading the charge to unionize.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is leading the charge to unionize.
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past five to ten years, an increasing rift has grown between NCAA student-athletes and the colleges that these student-athletes attend. Whether the issue is the safety of student-athletes, the compensation of student-athletes, or a myriad of other battles that have ensued throughout the years, the relationships between student-athletes and the universities they represent have taken center stage in the national headlines.

On Tuesday morning, amid all the media attention focused on Super Bowl week, student-athletes found themselves back in the spotlight thanks to a decision made by a group of football players at Northwestern University.

Outside the Lines first reported that football players at Northwestern are seeking representation from a labor union and are taking the necessary steps to "begin the process of being recognized as employees."

The Northwestern football players' desire to be recognized as employees is being led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who is currently preparing for the NFL Draft in May. Dan Wetzel of reported that Colter was first inspired by the thought of unionizing after taking a class at his university entitled, "Modern Workplace."

In September, select players (including Colter) from seven different college football teams took to the field on game day wearing accessories featuring an "APU" logo which stands for "All Players United."

The "APU" movement was started by the National College Players Association which formed as a non-profit advocacy group back in 2001. The NCPA supports a number of goals dedicated to increasing health care protections for student-athletes. NCPA's main objectives include minimizing college athletes' brain trauma risks, increasing scholarship awards, and ensuring university health care coverage for sports-related injuries.

On Tuesday, the NCPA's mission intersected with the interests of the Northwestern football players. The NCPA filed a petition and union cards on behalf of a group of Northwestern football players at the National Labor Relations Board office in Chicago. For the players to start an election process within the NLRB, at least 30 percent of Northwestern's players would have to submit union cards.

On the election cards, the football players listed Northwestern University as their employer. NLRB agents will seek an election agreement between the football players and the university if the Board has jurisdiction and the union is recognized. In choosing to select Northwestern University as opposed to the NCAA as its employer, the football players made a decision that impacts student-athletes across the country.

The National Labor Relations Act, which governs this law, only applies to private universities such as Northwestern. This means that any decisions made during the process of unionizing the student-athletes will not apply to student-athletes in similar situations at public universities such as Arizona State.

In all likelihood, Northwestern University's administration will reject the union. In doing so, a lengthy process of appeals will begin to determine whether the student-athletes deserve to be recognized as employees of their university. The process could take years to play out, and has a chance to end up in the federal court system.

By the time judges hear the cases of each side, the NCPA should have a plan in place to determine how student-athletes at public universities can seek the same representation and benefits that the football players at Northwestern are currently hoping to achieve.

For interested student-athletes at public universities, the process does appear more difficult. Public universities like Arizona State are governed by state labor laws and student-athletes at schools in each state would have to file separate petitions and union cards to their state labor boards.

So while football players at Northwestern are just beginning the process of taking on the NCAA to ensure better working conditions, we could be a long way away from seeing student-athletes at Arizona State or other public universities attempting a similar endeavor.

In the long run, if Arizona State athletes do pursue union representation, questions will be raised about Arizona's status as a right to work state. The Right to Work law is as follows.

No person shall be denied the opportunity to obtain or retain employment because of non-membership in a labor organization, nor shall the State or any subdivision thereof, or any corporation, individual or association of any kind enter into any agreement, written or oral, which excludes any person from employment or continuation of employment because of non-membership in a labor organization.

Looking ahead, it's hard to say whether the Right to Work law will discourage student-athletes at Arizona State from eventually pursuing union representation, but it will protect student-athletes who do not want to enter into a union from doing so.

However, if the football players at Northwestern succeed in their attempt to unionize and other student-athletes at private universities support the cause, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which some student-athletes would not want to enjoy the same protections as their teammates.

Regardless of how today's events play out, the actions taken by Kain Colter and his Northwestern teammates represent the continued effort of student-athletes to pursue better conditions in what they consider their workplace. This morning's filings demand dialogue from the athletes, the universities, and the NCAA governing body as a whole and will also require action from the National Labor Relations Board and eventually, the court system.

We could be months or years away from understanding how Tuesday morning's events will impact the student-athletes at Arizona State. We do know that much of the action taken by student-athletes at public universities will depend on the success of their peers seeking to organize at private universities. While attempting to unionize does not appear to be in the imminent future of student-athletes at Arizona State, it is no longer unfathomable that student-athletes across the country at private and public universities alike could one day stand together as employees in the workplace of college athletics.