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CHICAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Football players at Northwestern University on Friday became the first U.S. student athletes to cast ballots in an election to decide whether to unionize.
The vote, which has the potential to upend college sports, was supervised by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board in a university building near the football field on the Evanston, Illinois, campus.
But the outcome will likely remain unknown for months. The NLRB is impounding the ballots cast by the players, who voted before and after workouts on a sunny, windy Friday morning, with small groups of four or five players wearing their Wildcats purple practice jerseys voting.
Northwestern has requested the NLRB review whether the 76 scholarship football players who were eligible to vote have the right to unionize in the same way that private-sector U.S. employees do. The ballots will remain impounded until the federal labor agency decides that question.
The unionization drive at the Chicago-area school has caught the attention of players, fans and schools affiliated with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees sports programs for more than 1,200 universities in the United States and Canada and 420,000 college athletes.
Sports generates millions of dollars each season for NCAA schools through television contracts, ticket sales and merchandising. The bonanza has led to a national debate about whether elite college athletes should be paid like employees.
Talking to reporters in the stadium parking lot on voting day, former Wildcats non-scholarship player Michael Odom said: "Everyone is getting paid except for the players - coaches get paid, the university gets paid, the guy who cuts the grass gets paid. But the guys out there sacrificing their bodies and actually making money for all these people are not getting paid."
A 20-year-old journalism major who quit football a few months ago, Odom said if he had stayed on the team, he would not have been eligible to vote with the team's scholarship players. But he said he supported unionization.
"I don't think any Division I athlete is getting the same education as a regular student" due to the time commitment it takes to play full-time in a major sports program, Odom said.
The NCAA, which enforces rules that bar players from receiving compensation, reported $872 million in revenue in 2012. Northwestern's football program generated revenue of $235 million and expenses of $159 million from 2003 to 2012, according to its report to the U.S. Department of Education.
The NCAA has said that allowing the Northwestern players to unionize would "completely throw away" a system that has helped millions of athletes attend college.
Northwestern has said that while it is proud of its students for highlighting problems college athletes face, joining a union is not the right way to resolve those issues.
Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage on Friday disputed reports that the university had been pressuring players to vote against joining a union, including in e-mails to the players' parents.
"When the campaign started, the university received guidance from attorneys about what was allowable and what was not," Cubbage said at a campus press conference. "We communicated with all the audiences that we felt would be appropriate."
Northwestern senior and former quarterback Kain Colter, who has spearheaded the unionization drive, hailed Friday's vote as an important step. "I'm proud of what the Northwestern football team has accomplished," he said in a statement. "They are giving a voice to the voiceless and empowering current and future college athletes."
Colter, along with Ramogi Huma, a former University of California-Los Angeles football player who advocates for student athletes, earlier this year formed the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), a first-of-its-kind union seeking to represent the Northwestern football players.
CAPA scored an interim victory in March when NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr rejected Northwestern's contention that its football players are amateur athletes and granted the players the right to unionize as school employees.
Wildcats football recruits receive a "tender" that details the terms and conditions of their scholarship offer. Outside employment, social media use and behavior are all restricted. Northwestern exercises the type of control over players that employers do over employees, Ohr concluded.
Players spend 40 to 50 hours per week during the regular season practicing, playing and traveling to games, and receive scholarship assistance worth about $61,000 per year, Ohr noted.
"Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies," Ohr wrote.
The five-member NLRB board said on Thursday it would grant Northwestern's request to review Ohr's decision. As a result, the outcome of Friday's election will not be announced until the board decides whether to affirm, modify or reject Ohr's finding.
Colter and Huma have said that if CAPA represents the players, its priorities would be improving safety conditions and medical coverage for sports-related injuries, securing scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance and improving graduation rates.
Huma said at a press conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month that CAPA would not ask Northwestern to pay its football players.
Reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington and Michael Hirtzer in Chicago; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Dan Grebler