Bringing it Home: Aspen Institute tackles unionization in college sports |

Bringing it Home: Aspen Institute tackles unionization in college sports

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times

Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.

The Aspen Institute’s reputation has been built on its wide-ranging discussions about national and world affairs, but it also has expanded its reach to the world of sports.

Its Sports and Society Program was launched in 2011 and has since drawn such notable athletes as Jim Brown, Michelle Kwan and Gary Hall Jr. to speak in Aspen.

On Thursday in Washington, D.C., the Institute addressed one of the hot-button topics in college athletics: the treatment of athletes by the universities for which they play. The issue took on heightened significance last month when the Chicago arm of the National Labor Relations Board deemed that scholarship players on Northwestern University’s football team could form a union, giving them collective-bargaining rights. Essentially, the NLRB deemed that the athletes were employees of the university and should be treated as such. The topic hasn’t gone without controversy. The Evanston, Ill., school said it will likely appeal the ruling, which applies to private universities only.

Last week, union reps Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter were in Washington to meet with lawmakers about what could be a game-changing development in the college-sports arena. Northwestern’s scholarship football players are scheduled to vote to unionize on April 25; the university has until Wednesday to appeal the NLRB’s ruling.

Huma and Colter were interviewed Thursday in Washington by Tom Farrey, the director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program.

The two maintained that the effort to unionize is not about paying scholarship athletes. Rather, they say, forming a union is chiefly about health and safety for the athletes, whether it’s protecting athletes from playing with concussions or providing them with insurance coverage five years after they leave school.

“I think what it boils down to is setting up these talented young men and women,” Colter said Thursday at the Aspen Institute. “You’re setting them up for success down the road. And when you’re young, you think that you’re invincible, you’re going to play the game forever, you’re going to go into (professional sports), make millions, and the reality is only 1 percent of college football players are going to be professional.”

Colter added that once athletes leave college, “they need to be set up for success, and right now they are not.”

Huma also was critical of the NCAA’s scope of power over the lives of athletes and its apparent micromanaging of their affairs.

“So the question is: Should the NCAA be that heavily involved in regulating every last provision of a player’s life, down to whether or not they can receive groceries, whether or not a school provide a scholarship to a transferred student whose mom is sick?” he said. “I mean, it’s just really inappropriate some of the things that they look at.”

Huma said he hasn’t met many detractors over the unionization efforts, but they are out there.

“The only thing that really stands out was there was a high-profile basketball coach that started hollering at me over the phone when I tried to inform his players about their protections and kind of said, ‘Who are you to come in and mess with my program?’ and that type of thing. And I asked, ‘What are you doing to protect your players? Because there’s more things you can do,’ and he didn’t really want to hear it.”

Colter said the union effort has created a “rocky road.”

“It’s been a roller coaster, and we expected some critics, and I can honestly say there’s probably been some bridges burned,” he said.

A video of the interview can be found at


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