We’re not little kids! Northwestern quarterback Kain Coulter sounds off on NCAA union fight

New union could help protect college athletes from concussions, extend academic support, football star tells Salon

Published April 1, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Kain Colter (right)       (AP/Paul Beaty)
Kain Colter (right) (AP/Paul Beaty)

Northwestern football players secured an incremental but historic victory last week: a regional Labor Board ruling rejecting the university’s claim that they had no right to unionize. That ruling follows fresh congressional scrutiny and class action challenges to the NCAA’s business model – and, as Salon has reported, years of organizing among the NCAA’s so-called student-athletes.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘You know, this is going to ruin the purity of college sports, and the purity of NCAA,’” former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter told Salon Monday. “It’s funny, because nothing about it is very pure right now.” Colter -- a board member, spokesperson and star Labor Board witness for the College Athletes Players Association – told Salon the group has been in touch with athletes at “quite a few schools,” including both private universities, which would be covered by a Northwestern National Labor Relations Board precedent, and public schools, which Colter called “the next step.” (Public universities are governed by individual states’ labor laws; as Salon has reported, laws on the books in states including Florida, California and New York could make them ripe targets.)

Salon asked Colter about the injuries that spurred him to organize, GOP fears of a Sweet 16 strike, and how he plans to organize amid a years-long legal fight that the NCAA says will reach the Supreme Court. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

Now that you’ve had this incremental legal victory, will we see more college athletes filing for union elections on other campuses?

We’ve always stated that our goal is to branch out and then eventually represent, you know, all the colleges that we can. So I think what this win did is it inspired players. It made them realize that it’s possible to make a change, and it’s possible that our voice can get heard. And I think when they see somebody like a Northwestern, and what we did – kind of be pioneers, and then set the trend – it’s going to be easier for other campuses to follow.

Have you personally been in touch with players on other campuses since this decision came down?

Yes. We’ve been in touch with players from quite a few schools. I’m not going to name any names or anything like that – you know, I’ll just let things play out …

Does that include public universities [some of which are covered by far more favorable labor laws] as well?

Yes. Yes, absolutely … this decision has a real tangible impact on these private universities, and then public universities is the next step. So they definitely have been on our list, and our radar.

Sen. Lamar Alexander said, "Imagine a university's basketball players striking before a Sweet 16 game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food and no classes before 11 a.m." He added, "This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it." Is that a reasonable concern?

No. No, striking and, you know, drastic measures like that have never been something that we endorse or promote ...

This is only going to enhance the game. How can you say that players finally having a voice is going to ruin the game? You know, to me, that’s just an absurd statement ... It’s not like we’re little kids anymore. We’re young men who give a lot … and we should have a voice in all this.

Can you imagine a situation though where a work stoppage would be a good move to get some change in this industry?

Absolutely not. You know, that’s the last thing that CAPA would endorse, and the last thing that we would want … It’s just something that I don’t see happening. I guess I’ll put it that way.

Do you worry that that reduces your leverage, if you take that tactic off the table?

No … We have plenty of leverage, and it’s strength in numbers. And if we do have all of these colleges we are able to unite, I think that they’re going to be forced to listen to us.

And at the end of the day, that is a card that obviously has a chance of being played. But for us it’s something that -- we would do anything not to play that card. So I don’t think we go into negotiations, or things like that, just ready to talk about “work stoppage” and things like that. As I said, that’s something that we’ve never endorsed.

You’ve said, and others have said, that the main issue is with the NCAA, not the university. If you won collective bargaining just at Northwestern, would you have leverage through collective bargaining with Northwestern to change the rules of the NCAA?

It’s something that obviously I think puts some fear into the NCAA – just seeing that others schools can do this. And even within the university’s limits, there are some great things that we can negotiate for …

These antitrust lawsuits, and things like that -- really that is almost a key factor, and once one of these things breaks through, you know: Game on … These [are] things that have the potential to change the whole game.

You’ve said that the NCAA currently “is like a dictatorship.” How fundamentally do you want to transform the NCAA?

The NCAA, it isn’t very pure right now. If you look at huge salaries from the NCAA executives and officials and the coaches, it’s almost like, you know the players just aren’t receiving anything from their hard work, except the opportunity to get a scholarship …

What I would like to see … is [for] the players to have a voice …

Any time the players, or anybody representing the players, has tried to give [the NCAA] input, has tried to fit into their structure, we’ve been met with closed doors. And that’s the biggest thing that would change: We need a seat at the table. We need to sit down, and once you get great minds, that represent all different, you know, parts of the structure, we’ll come up with some great solutions …

A lot of people are saying, “You know, this is going to ruin the purity of college sports, and the purity of NCAA.” It’s funny, because nothing about it is very pure right now.

What are the experiences that you’ve had as a player that spurred you to organize?

I think Northwestern is far beyond a lot of these schools. They have offered us some great resources that have helped our players out. But I think just getting by, month to month, can really be a challenge. And not having the guarantee that your medical bills will be covered, especially down the road.

And now that I’m finished, I can, you know, feel the effects of some injuries that I’ve had throughout my time playing football. And you know, not knowing if I need to get those fixed down the road or taken care of, or if it’s going to prevent me from working later on. Not having those medical protections guaranteed is a scary thing …

If you look at some other schools, some other programs, they don’t do as good a job as Northwestern. Those are the programs that I would say are most in need.

What kind of injuries?

Concussions … you never know how those will affect you down the road. And I just had surgery on my ankle. I’ve had a bunch of nicks and bruises that I’m still feeling now. You know, I don’t feel … 100 per cent.

A lot of time, we just battle through these, and suit up and keep playing. And down the road, you never know how that’s going to affect you …

I know for a fact I’ve had at least one [concussion]. And I mean, a lot of times, who knows? You know, you get your bell rung, and a lot of times, with football players, it’s, “Be tough, guys.” So we like to not show any signs of weakness, or anything like that … Who knows how many concussions people have had playing the sport?

The NCAA, in its statement, said, “We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid … We want student athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.” Where do you disagree with that?

We just made the point that we are paid to play, and the NLRB ruled in [favor of] our position. So obviously we love the game, and we love what we do, and it truly is a labor of love -- as in everything. Every job anybody does, they should love what they do – same thing as us. But at the end of the day, it still is a job ... And at the end of the day, it’s big business.

If the NCAA wants to act like it’s just educational experience, then they should sacrifice the huge, you know, salaries … that their officials are making, that … head coaches are making …

They pointed out that 99 percent of players won’t ever be able … to really make money off their special talents. So you know, if we do have an opportunity to … set ourselves up for success down the road, I think that would be great.

What is it that makes you an employee?

We’re paid in the form of scholarship, tuition and board. And so we proved that. We proved the amount of hours we work -- and oftentimes those are anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week. We had to show that we are under the control [of], monitored by, the coaching staff, and …school administrators. We had to show [there are] all these policies that we had to follow – social media policy, maintaining certain weight …going to class, staying above a certain GPA level, and things like that. So those were the main factors that the NLRB took into account to make its ruling.

Was it a scary decision to start organizing on campus?

I don’t think it was scary …

Whenever you’re making a chance that’s unprecedented, and nobody has done it before, I think the only fear comes from the unknown, and how things are going to play out …

It wasn’t just a spur-of-the-moment thing. We had truly planned this out … and we knew we had a strong case. We knew that we truly had the potential to help future generations of players out for years to come … More than fear, or scared, we were honored to do it, and excited for changes to come.

We already know this will be appealed to the NLRB in D.C. … Whether or not the election happens, or the ballots are impounded, if Northwestern refuses to bargain even if you win at the D.C. NLRB level, and this goes on to federal appeals court … if the legal question stays unresolved for years and years, how is that going to affect the ability to organize each new group of players who come in each year?

Personally, I’m not positive about all of the certain routes that this legal process can take. I just know that with these certain wins … add momentum, and add positive feelings for the players around the country, to know that we’re making change. So even if the school and the NCAA refuses … every small win that we encounter on this path is going to really inspire these guys to make change. It’s just going to light their fire even more, and prove that what we’re doing has merit …

Obviously this process can take a while. But every small win that we encounter is going to play a big part in … the morale of all the players around the country.

Northwestern obviously opposes your right to organize, but have they taken actions to encourage players to vote “no” in a unionization election?

Not that I know of …

Up to this point, they have done a great job of letting the legal process play out, and letting the players, you know, maintain a fairly normal college experience … Our players are just getting back from spring break, so I don’t know how things will turn out …

Northwestern has an amazing opportunity to truly … embrace this and make a change. For them to be able to be the first program that’s going to offer their players better protections, better rights and a true voice -- I think that’s a huge win for the school, and for the sports program … They need to take into account … how this can be a win for them in the recruiting realm, and just having a good reputation among the players.

Were you disappointed, then, that they said they’ll be appealing to the NLRB in D.C.?

No, I figured. I’m sure that they’re getting a lot of pressure from the NCAA … But I do think they need to take into account the positive things that can come from them embracing the decision, and truly supporting their players’ quest to have a voice.

In a poll released last week, 73 percent of white respondents opposed “paying salaries to college athletes,” while 51 percent of non-white respondents supported it. Taylor Branch argued that the “evasion” offered in defense of the NCAA “echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves.” Does race play a role in maintaining the NCAA status quo?

That’s a really good question. You know, I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. You know, I think – I know for a fact – that this country has come a long way with racism. But when you look at the two revenue-generating sports, I know that they’re heavily dominated by African-American populations. But you know, I would like to think that the country is past that, and that we are on the road to equality.

I don’t want to jump to any conclusions … I guess I’ll just leave it at that.

What are the highest-priority campus or NCAA policies to change?

No. 1 is medical protections … extending past the end of a player’s eligibility …

No. 2 is we’d like to see concussion reform. Concussion prevention and concussion research in the NCAA, and these schools making great strides to protect these players’ brains.

No. 3 for us is extended academic support. You know, for a lot of these campuses, if you only play three or four years because you didn’t red-shirt, you’re not going to have the opportunity to have one year of your grad school paid for like you would if you did red-shirt …

There needs to be something in place that’s truly going to help these players finish their degrees. Because graduation rate for D1 football, and for FBS football and D1 basketball, is right around 50 percent. And that’s not an acceptable trend, and it’s something that we need to fix …

Those things I just mentioned – we don’t have to wait for NCAA rules to change.

What, if anything, do you think the media or the general public misunderstands about the work that you’re doing, or the experience that you’re having at Northwestern?

No. 1, the most frustrating thing is people wanting to make this is a complaint, or almost an action out of abuse or mistreatment, which it wasn’t at all.

I love the school. I’ve had a great experience there. And it truly prepared me to take on this challenge. And I’m grateful for everything. I love our coaches. I love Coach Fitz. I don’t want the public to think that this is a complaint about our treatment at the school.

We just want to be recognized for what we are -- as employees of the school -- and have our basic rights, our basic protections, recognized under labor law.

No. 2, a lot of people jump to … [claiming] we’re advocating for paying players big salaries. That’s never been on our agenda. We already just proved that we’re already paid to play ... When people jump to, you know, paying players huge salaries, just look at our goals. That has never been a part of our goals, never been something that we’ve advocated for.

What would unionization mean for the lower-revenue sports?

I don’t think it would change anything for them. You know, a lot of people want to think that this would ruin non-revenue sports and that they’d have to be dropped from the schools’ programs. It’s just a scare tactic.

If you look at Division II, those programs keep all of their sports, and none of their programs are revenue-generating … The schools find that these programs are valuable enough to keep them.

There’s $1.2 billion in new revenue from TV contracts every year, and that’s more than enough money to support all these programs. So it’s just a scare tactic. It’s just a myth in order for people to maintain the system they have today.

By Josh Eidelson

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