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Lindsey Holden/MEDILL

Players' attorney John Adam said Wednesday's National Labor Relations Board hearing was the first step in proving college athletes are “employees and are entitled to the rights of employees under labor law.”

Northwestern football union a conversation starter for former NCAA and NFL players

by Lindsey Holden
Feb 12, 2014

As the Northwestern University football team pressed to make its case for unionizing Wednesday at a National Labor Relations Board hearing, former college and professional players sounded off about the players’ case.

“This is the United States of America, and capitalism is the name of the game,” said Daryl Newell, a former Wildcats lineman who lives in Chicago.

NU senior Kain Colter and a collection of Northwestern football players joined with the National College Players Association in January to announce their intent to unionize. Players filed union cards with the NLRB to gain recognition as employees. Players' attorney John Adam said college athletes have been “exploited,” and the hearing was the first step in proving college athletes are “employees and are entitled to the rights of employees under labor law.”

For former players, who participated in NCAA football during the 1980s, the Wildcats’ case serves as a demonstration of how much college football has changed since they took the field.

“Back in the day, NFL coaches made more money at the NFL level. Now, that isn’t necessarily the case,” said Bruce Matthews, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who played for the University of Southern California before being drafted by the Houston Oilers in 1983.

“There is a lot of money being made, obviously,” Matthews said. “Playing in the NFL and seeing the business side of that, basically you’re an expendable asset, and once your use to the team is up, then obviously they move on.”

Matthews had a unique perspective on the money being made from college football, as his sons, Jake and Mike Matthews, are both offensive linemen at Texas A&M University. He agrees with the Northwestern football team’s efforts.

“I can see it in the college ranks with this football playoff coming up, the TV dough that’s going to be available for that,” Matthews said. “And Johnny Manziel ... just seeing his ascension out of nowhere, and what that did, not only for his brand name but Texas A&M football’s brand name.”

But Matthews said he is still appreciative of his USC education and thinks getting a college degree is an important asset for players today.

“You still need to be prepared to do something and to invest your life in something that’s meaningful, so I believe strongly in the value of a college education,” Matthews said.

Ken Ruettgers, who also played football at USC before being drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1985, said he never felt exploited. He pointed out that institutions take a chance by providing scholarships to untested players coming directly out of high school.

“It wasn’t like I was some sure deal," Ruettgers said. "I was a high school player, and they were saying ‘Hey, we’re willing to take a chance on you. And we’re willing to take a chance on you not only on the football field but in the classroom, as well.’”

“I felt it was an opportunity I was presented," he said. "And I had the freedom to say yes or no, based on those terms, and I said ‘heck, yes.’ ”

Newell, a banking professional, was also grateful for his degree and the opportunity to play Big 10 football. As a Northwestern alumnus, he said he’s proud of the players’ efforts.

“There’s an opportunity, not just for football players to leverage a union, but for all student athletes,” Newell said. “It just shows the level of maturity of our student-athletes.”