Northwestern football players cast secret ballots Friday on whether to unionize, an unprecedented event in collegiate athletics.
It may take several weeks, months or even years before the results are known. The ballot boxes will be sealed as the university legally appeals the team’s unionization effort.
The National Labor Relations Board agreed Thursday to allow Northwestern’s appeal of a regional director’s March ruling that players are employees and can form a union.
The ballots will be sealed until the appeal process is finalized. A long court battle could ensue after that.
Supporters say unionizing would help college athletes receive improved compensation and medical care for injuries, among other benefits.
“You got to give the people what they want!” one player shouted at reporters, who were forced to keep a distance during the voting, according the Associated Press.
The NLRB ruling only applies to private universities but it was viewed as a step toward the end of traditional student athletics. The NCAA, Northwestern and many college athletic departments, nationally, have been critical of the unionization effort.
Northwestern’s 76 football players under scholarship were eligible to vote.
Ramogi Huma is president of the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent players if unionization is approved.
Northwestern hopes that unionizing will not lead to player strikes. It also fears that it could create an “us-versus-them” mentality between eligible scholarship athletes and non-union walk-ons and coaches.
Huma disputed the school’s claims.
“No one is taking about striking,” he said. “They are trying to rattle players.”
The players’ union drive was started by quarterback Kain Colter in January.
While several players have expressed support for the union, others, including new starting quarterback Trevor Siemian, have said they planned to vote against it.
“I’ll say there’s a significant number of guys on the team who feel the same as me,” he said earlier this month.
Other players who agree with Siemian have said the issues are not clear cut enough to justify supporting it and just want to focus on football.
The College Athletes Players Association praised the players for taking a stand in the vote and a CAPA release read in part: “A significant summary from CAPA at the end of the release: “If CAPA loses the election, the legal process ends. But even if CAPA loses the election, the NLRB ruling that players are employees and have the right to choose union representation will be the law. Northwestern would not be able to challenge the ruling.”