CHICAGO — Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter testified Tuesday that he was essentially paid to play via his scholarship as the National Labor Relations Board opened a closely watched hearing on a bid to form what would be the first union for college athletes in U.S. history.
From a witnesses stand in a federal court building, Colter characterized playing college football as a job and said schools make clear to incoming players that athletics are a higher priority than academics.
Colter, a co-founder of the newly formed College Athletes Players Association, said players adhere to grueling schedules, putting in 40- to 50-hour weeks on football during and before the season. During August training, he said, players often start practice at 8 a.m. and finish at 10 p.m.
“It’s a job, there is no way around it — it’s a job,” said Colter, a 21-year-old senior whose college career is over.
Asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: “To play football. To perform an athletic service.” Later, he said players earn the money, in part, “by sacrificing our bodies.”
Whether the players qualify under federal law as employees is the core question for the NLRB. If they are deemed employees, they would have rights to unionize. Whatever ruling the panel makes can be appealed.
The Colter-led bid, which is supported by the United Steelworkers, is seen as a test case that could transform the landscape of college athletics. The NCAA and Big Ten Conference, which includes Northwestern, both maintain that college students are not employees whatever their participation might be in athletics.
A decision by the NLRB could come soon after the testimony concludes.
For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, like Northwestern. Public universities, which are subject to different regulations, could follow later.