Player-union attempt gets under way

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A group of Northwestern football players will line up against their university on Wednesday morning in a National Labor Relations Board hearing that could lead to historic, landmark change for college sports.

The hearing, scheduled for Wednesday morning at the iconic Chicago Rookery Building, will mark the next step in a process that will determine whether the players are student-athletes, as Northwestern and the NCAA insist, or employee-athletes who can form a union and bargain for benefits. On Jan. 28, Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, filed a petition in Chicago on behalf of the players at the regional office of the NLRB.

Known in American labor law as a "certification of representative" procedure, Wednesday's hearing will begin with procedural matters and scheduling. Things really get moving at the next scheduled hearing on Feb. 18.

Both hearings will be led by an agent of the NLRB, Joyce Hofstra, who will take testimony from players and the university. She also will gather documents and submit material to the agency's regional director for Chicago, Peter Sung Ohr, who will make an initial decision, likely within a few months. The losers in Ohr's decision may appeal to the NLRB in Washington, D.C., which is known as the "big board," then to a federal appeals court in Washington or back in Chicago.

Although the NCAA is not directly involved in the hearing, Donald Remy, its chief legal officer, said, "We will watch the developments and engage where appropriate."

Northwestern will be represented by Joe Tilson, an experienced and skilled labor lawyer and co-chair of the firm Meckler Bulger Tilson Marick and Pearson in Chicago. Tilson declined to comment, but Northwestern said in a statement that it believes "our student-athletes are not employees but students."

Insisting that athletics are "part of the overall educational experience and not a separate activity," Northwestern is expected to produce evidence of its support of its athletes and their classroom successes. According to NCAA data, the football players earn high grades annually and had a 2012 graduation rate of 97 percent, the highest in the nation. Their success, the university will argue, "is a testament to their academic abilities and confirms their status as students."

In addition to emphasizing the academic achievements of Wildcats players, the university will suggest that the issues raised by the players (long-term health coverage, additional scholarship funds and other benefits), are being discussed "at the national level" and are "outside the purview of Northwestern."

In response, the players will assert, as they did in a statement released Monday, that their "stellar academic performance is achieved in spite of their extraordinary athletic time demands, not a result of them." But they acknowledge Northwestern's suggestion that their issues are with the NCAA and not with the university. "A union will allow Northwestern players to negotiate for better protections allowable under NCAA rules," the statement said.

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