Feb 12, 2014 11:02 AM EST
Northwestern Football Players Take First Step Toward Unionization at NLRB Hearing Wed.
The Northwestern University football players pushing for a union in college sports take their first step Wednesday when they will appear in a National Labor Rights Board (NLRB) hearing.
Also at the hearing, ESPN reported, will be representatives from the NCAA and Northwestern. The football players will argue that they are "employee-athletes," not student-athletes, and should be allowed to unionize and negotiate for benefits.
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On Jan. 28, National College Players Association (NCPA) president Ramogi Huma filed a petition on behalf of the players with the NLRB's regional Chicago office.
Wednesday's hearing will be the first of two court dates, the next coming on Feb. 18. Wednesday's hearing is known as a "certification of representative" procedure and it will begin with procedural matters and scheduling. NLRB agent Joyce Hofstra will lead both hearings.
In their argument to keep student-athletes classified that way, Northwestern will argue that the school's football players' academic success makes them students first, not employees. NCAA data from 2012 shows that the school's football players had a graduation rate of 97 percent, highest in the country.
The NCAA will not be directly involved in the hearings, but will still be represented by COO Donald Remy.
"We will watch the developments and engage where appropriate," he told ESPN.
The football players will argue that their academic success is "in spite of their extraordinary athletic time demands, not a result of them." Several other major football programs do not have the stellar graduation rates and grade averages that Northwestern does.
In a statement Monday, the players said a union will allow them to negotiate for better benefits and protections for their time devoted to athletics.
"Establishing a union at Northwestern is not the endgame," said the statement. "Rather, it is a first step toward building a nationwide players' association that will eventually have the leverage to eliminate unjust NCAA policies that affect players at each college."
College athletes in division I basketball and football devote more than 40 hours a week to their sport, miss classes for nationally televised games and their coaches are often among the highest paid state employees. Division I basketball and football bring in billions of dollars for the NCAA in merchandise and hugely lucrative media deals.
Still, one expert said it will be difficult for the students to convince the NLRB that they are employees rather than students.
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"They are paying tuition to attend the university, and they are primarily students," Zev Eigen, a professor of labor law at Northwestern, told ESPN. "It will be very difficult for them to convince anyone that they are employees."