DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is an historic day at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Seventy-six scholarship football players are eligible to vote on whether or not to form the first labor union for college athletes. Today's vote was set up by a National Labor Relations Board ruling last month that said players qualified as employees of the university, giving them the right to unionize.
NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us now to help us sort this out. Tom, good morning.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hello.
GREENE: So tell us about what's happening today.
GOLDMAN: OK, David, there are two voting sessions on Northwestern's Evanston campus. As mentioned, 76 football players under scholarship can vote. Walk-ons cannot. And once all the votes are cast, the ballots are put under lock and key. And here's kind of the anticlimactic part. We may not know how the vote goes for a long time. The ruling late last month by the NLRB's regional director in Chicago - the one granting the players employee status - that was appealed by Northwestern. And just yesterday, the full NLRB in Washington, D.C., agreed to hear the appeal. Votes can't be counted until that appeals process is through. That could be months, if the issue ends up in courts. After that, could be years.
GREENE: Well, Tom, especially for people who haven't been following this story, the idea of a union for college athletes - you know, I mean, we think of college sports as amateur sports. I mean, how did we get here?
GOLDMAN: Yeah. Well, the momentum for athletes' rights has been building over the years as the revenues from big-time college sports have grown - exploded, really - and the players haven't shared in the wealth. It's been revealed they sometimes haven't even been able to make ends meet with the scholarships they get; that sometimes, the medical coverage for injured athletes is insufficient. Against that backdrop, the NCAA has been extremely limited - and that's probably putting it nicely - in enacting reforms. So, this push to unionize materialized in recent months. It was embraced publicly by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, and so Northwestern became the test case.
GREENE: Hearing you say enacting reforms, I mean, there are some ideas out there to potentially address some of these concerns by athletes who want sort of a piece of the pie, perhaps stopping short though of forming unions.
GOLDMAN: Yeah. You know, as a matter of fact, just yesterday, the NCAA's Division I board of directors endorsed a plan that potentially will provide added benefits for college athletes playing in the biggest conferences, including Northwestern, which is a member of the Big 10. Question is will some of the players scheduled to vote today look at that possibility of more benefits and decide, well, we don't need a union then?
GREENE: Which leads me to ask you, do we have a sense of how this vote by the players is going to go?
GOLDMAN: You know, there are hints here and there but really not enough to predict which way it'll go. A simple majority of those who vote is needed for union victory. We've heard several prominent players - the starting quarterback, the senior running back - they're against the union. The head coach, Pat Fitzgerald, has made his opposition known. Some union proponents worry that opposition could put some players in a bind, not wanting to anger their coach. On the other side, it's said there is a pro-union group of players but they haven't been as outspoken about their support.
GREENE: Tom, I know there's a lot to sort out. I mean, there's this vote, this NLRB ruling might actually carry more weight. But whatever happens, this feels like a really important moment, potentially setting precedent in college sports.
GOLDMAN: Oh, it could be very important. If the NLRB upholds this right to unionize and there is a pro-union vote at Northwestern. Yeah, it'll be big for Northwestern, it'll set a precedent at other private universities around the country that could possibly spread to public universities. Now, even if nothing comes of this effort to unionize, you know, it doesn't seem that they'll kill the momentum for change in college sports. Change is afoot. There are lawsuits pending against the NCAA. There's the decision I mentioned about the endorsement of the plan to restructure Division I. Just seems like things are moving in the direction that favors more rights, more benefits for college athletes.
GREENE: All right. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thanks, Tom.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
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