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At Northwestern, a Blitz to Defeat an Effort to Unionize

EVANSTON, Ill. — A National Labor Relations Board official took a historic step last month in ruling that Northwestern's scholarship football players should be considered employees of the university and therefore had the right to unionize like other workers.

And then, almost immediately, Northwestern began a wide-ranging campaign to defeat a unionization vote, which is scheduled for Friday.

The president emeritus publicly said that a vote for the union could mean the end of Division I sports at Northwestern. A former quarterback visited the team to encourage players to vote no. Coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former football star who is revered on campus, has framed a vote for the union as a personal betrayal.

"Understand that by voting to have a union, you would be transferring your trust from those you know — me, your coaches and the administrators here — to what you don't know — a third party who may or may not have the team's best interests in mind," Fitzgerald wrote to the team in an email.

Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald has urged his football players to vote no on a bid to form a union. The vote is set for Friday.
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Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald has urged his football players to vote no on a bid to form a union. The vote is set for Friday.

The university's push has not been all ominous warnings, though. Players were given new iPads when they arrived for the first day of practice after the N.L.R.B. decision, though the university said the iPads were unrelated to the union process and had been in the planning for months. That afternoon, players were taken to a bowling alley for a team party.

"What the university has tried to do is to communicate clearly the university's position to the student-athletes who are going to be voting in the election," the university spokesman Alan Cubbage said. "We have done so following the guidelines and procedures outlined by the National Labor Relations Board. Our position is that we believe that our student-athletes are primarily students. That has not changed."

Indeed, since the day of the N.L.R.B. ruling, Northwestern's message to the players has been consistent and clear: Vote no — for yourselves, for the team and for the university. Northwestern and many others in the college sports world see the creation of a players union as an existential threat to the foundation of the N.C.A.A., and to their athletic programs.

Northwestern's campaign has been a textbook case of how to aggressively battle a union, labor experts say. It adds up to a lot of pressure riding on the broad shoulders of the 76 football players who are eligible to vote Friday by secret ballot. The results may not be known for months while the full N.L.R.B. deliberates on an appeal.

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"These are 18- and 20-year-old kids," said Earl Jones, the father of running back Malin Jones. "This is a really big decision. As a parent, I'm trying to get all the information I can, and I hope my son is, too."

No one has accused the university of breaking any law. Northwestern is allowed to express its opinion on unionization, though it cannot make explicit promises in exchange for votes.

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The formation of a union would mean that the football players were university employees, not students competing in their free time, and that they could be entitled to workers' compensation benefits, unemployment insurance and some portion of the revenue generated by college sports. The College Athletes Players Association is seeking to represent the players.

"Student-athletes don't have a voice; they don't have a seat at the table," Kain Colter, a former Northwestern quarterback who is the leader of the unionization effort, said in January. "The current model resembles a dictatorship, with the N.C.A.A. placing these rules and regulations on these students without their input or without their negotiations."

For its part, Northwestern has not been content to let the vote play out on its own. As a result, Northwestern officials, from the assistant football coaches up to the university president, have pulled out all the stops to squash the union before it is formed.

Fitzgerald has held one-on-one meetings with players, along with mandatory meetings for the scholarship football players. The coach has written letters to the players and their parents. Position coaches have also been in contact with players' parents.

"In my heart, I know that the downside of joining a union is much bigger than the upside," Fitzgerald wrote in the April 14 letter he emailed to his team. "You have nothing to gain by forming a union."

The fate of the unionization effort at Northwestern has captivated the sports world, labor leaders and elected officials in Washington, many of whom met the union organizers this month.

Several players turned down interview requests, but some stated at spring practice this month that they intended to vote against the union.

"We back Coach Fitz 100 percent wholeheartedly," wide receiver Kyle Prater said.

Familiar anti-union arguments, that the business will close or move out of town if a union is formed, have been tweaked for the college football setting.

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Players have heard warnings that the formation of a union would make it harder for them to land jobs after graduation; that Fitzgerald might leave; that alumni donations would dry up; that Northwestern's planned $225 million athletic center could be scrapped.

The women's fencing coach told his team that a union could put the future of fencing in jeopardy, though he later apologized.

"It sounds like a vigorous, strenuous anti-union campaign that employers often employ when they're determined to defeat unionization efforts," said Fred Feinstein, a former N.L.R.B. general counsel.

In recent weeks, the university put together a 21-page document for the football team answering questions that Northwestern officials said they had received through an anonymous suggestion box, emails and phone calls.

The document, which was first reported by CBSSports.com, highlighted Northwestern's track record of strong academics and fair treatment of its players.

And it left no doubt about what administrators believed was in the university's best interests.

"This is not what we wanted — how can we get back to being students and not employees?" read one question that was apparently submitted by an anonymous player.

Northwestern's answer: The "process has to go forward, but you can still express your desire to 'get back to being students' by voting 'No.' "

Dan Persa, a former quarterback who played for Fitzgerald from 2007 to 2011, has been among the most vocal in urging the players to vote down the union, according to two people who have spoken to the players.

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Persa said he opposed a union because it would introduce so much uncertainty, but, in an interview, he insisted that his only goal was to make sure players were informed before they voted. He has visited Northwestern's football facilities to make his views known. "No one knows what could happen," Persa said. "That's scary."

Several alumni were so concerned with how players were being influenced that they organized a meeting last week at a community center here.

"We decided this is not right because it's interfering with the process the players voted for, that they established," said Kevin Brown, a defensive back during the 1980s. "It should be able to play itself out without guys hearing messages that they're hurting their school."

The union would be certified by obtaining a simple majority, though the ballots will not be counted while the full five-person N.L.R.B. decides whether it will review the case, or while it prepares its own ruling. That could take months.

Tim Waters, the political director of the United Steelworkers, a union that has supported the players' organizing effort, declined to comment on whether the union had considered filing a complaint with the N.L.R.B. over Northwestern's actions.

Meanwhile, college administrators across the country and the N.C.A.A. continue to watch Northwestern closely.

The Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill that said college students cannot be employees. Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, called a union "grossly inappropriate."

Some of the pressure will end Thursday, according to N.L.R.B. rules, which forbid mandatory meetings the day before unionization votes. Then, the players will have their say.

—By Ben Strauss of The New York Times