Jim Phillips backs player changes

ByAdam Rittenberg ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 13, 2014

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips opposes a union with the Wildcats football team but hopes the discussion about athletes' welfare leads to changes, including a voting presence about the issues that most affect them.

"I know [unionization] is not the right mechanism for change nationally, but areas of welfare and health and safety, those are the right things for us to be talking about," Phillips said Tuesday during the Big Ten's athletic directors meetings. "There are some real positive residuals that have occurred from the conversation about unionization."

The regional director of Chicago's National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern football players are employees of the school. Northwestern appealed the ruling to the national NLRB board and is awaiting its decision.

Wildcats football players voted April 25 on whether to form a union. Their votes are sealed and won't be counted unless the national NLRB board denies Northwestern's appeal.

Phillips reiterated that athletes aren't employees and college sports "are not the minor leagues." He said while college athletics aren't in the right place, unionization would harm accessibility and affordability to higher education for athletes who currently enjoy those opportunities.

But he added that athletes must have more power in big decisions.

"We've asked them in the past to be in an advisory role," Phillips told ESPN.com. "We need them to be in an active, voting capacity. No one is living the experience like they are. We can do that in a way that makes sense, and it's necessary."

The Big Ten athletic directors spent Tuesday morning talking extensively about increasing the value of athletic scholarships to federal cost of attendance figures. The figures vary from schools but are about $2,000-$3,000 per athlete.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said the increase for Illinois' program would cost about $1 million.

"It goes back to the $2,000 stipend that was voted down," Thomas said. "Had that not been voted down, would we be in a different place today? Not only would we have the needle moving in the right direction as it relates to things we need to do for our student-athletes, it would have provided us traction for some of the areas that are being discussed today."