EVANSTON, Ill. (USA TODAY) -- The first votes came in just after 6 a.m., as Northwestern football players trickled into McGaw Hall to decide whether to form a union for the first time in college sports history.
The event itself was rather, well, uneventful and mostly symbolic. The ballots that left Northwestern in two large aluminum boxes just after noon will be impounded at the National Labor Relations Board office in Chicago, unlikely to even be counted for months. In the meantime, the national NLRB will consider an appeal by Northwestern challenging the regional office ruling that classified Northwestern football players as employees.
Several players declined to speak with reporters about their ballots, and until the NLRB rules on Northwestern's appeal — again, a process that will likely take months — it will remain a mystery whether a majority of the 76 players eligible to vote elected to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association.
In a statement released shortly after the vote was concluded, CAPA called it "a major victory for college athletes whatever the outcome" and stressed that a more significant victory for its group would be the national NLRB upholding the initial ruling that players are employees.
Northwestern vice president for university relations Alan Cubbage said the school was pleased that the NLRB accepted its request for review.
"Northwestern believes very strongly that our students are students, first and foremost," he said. "They are not employees, and we believe very strongly that their role here at the university is primarily (as) students."
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The actual voting itself took place in a room closed to the media, monitored by NLRB officials.
There were two opportunities for players to vote: One between 6 a.m. and 7:30, then again between 10 a.m. and noon with a team workout and breakfast in between.
It was unclear how many of the eligible players cast ballots; Cubbage said the school was not allowed to know that number per NLRB guidelines.
Ex-player Michael Odom, who walked onto the team last season but quit because the time demands were interfering with his academic work, said he believed the formation of union would be voted down because players had been "talked out of" yes votes by Northwestern officials and former players who had framed it as a betrayal of the Wildcats football family.
"I think it's unfortunate," Odom said. "The administration has been heavily kind of trying to guilt trip players into not voting for it. Again I'm not in the locker room, I don't play anymore, so I don't want to sound like I'm more involved than I am. This is all hearsay, but I trust what my teammates tell me."
Earlier this week, CBSSports.com obtained a 21-page internal document distributed to players that framed Northwestern's anti-union argument in a question-and-answer format. The New York Times obtained an April 14 e-mail in which head coach Pat Fitzgerald told players they had "nothing to gain" by forming a union and that the downside was bigger than the upside, framing the issue as a matter of trust.
Though some pro-union voices claim Northwestern's messaging has been heavy-handed, Cubbage said the university has followed the guidelines handed down from the NLRB during the election campaign period.
"There may have been some claims alleging otherwise, but that simply is not the case. That's just not true," he said. "We did indeed explain very consistently and very clearly the university's position which is we believe our students are students, not employees, and we don't believe unionization and collective bargaining are the appropriate methods."
The university didn't make any other school or athletics officials, including Fitzgerald, available for comment. Athletic department spokesman Paul Kennedy said Fitzgerald's previous comments on the matter would stand, given that the status of the unionization effort hasn't changed since the last time he talked about it publicly.
Davion Fleming, a safety on last year's team who has since graduated, said in a phone interview Friday he wasn't sure which way the vote would go. But he described an environment around the program over the last three months in which players struggled to know which side to believe.
"When you hear from all these sources that you can't trust the coaches, then it becomes how much can you trust other people and the things they say?" Fleming said "That's been kind of the hardest thing for them, even me, and I don't even have a vote. You hear all these things and it's like, what is factual and what isn't? So I think that's probably one of the hardest things is to make an educated choice on the matter."
Fleming, who disagreed with the notion that Fitzgerald or Northwestern had done anything inappropriate in stating their position, said he thought Friday's vote would be a temporary relief for a group of players who've unexpectedly been thrust into the national spotlight.
"At least for the time being, until all the appeal stuff is over," Fleming said. "It's going to come back up but for now they can focus on football and having a good season.
It was obvious Friday these have not been normal times for Northwestern.
Before casting his ballot, punter Chris Gradone got out of a car with a documentary crew from Al Jazeera America. There was also a lone protester holding a sign that read, "Become Aware, Not Controlled."
That protester, Fred Massey, is a former assistant basketball coach at Detroit Country Day School who has worked with several former and current Div. 1 players. He drove down from Detroit, he said, in support of the union vote.
"I hope they vote yes. I know they're being pressured," Massey said. "Once players feel like they've been taken advantage of by the system, a couple players have reached out to me at other schools and they're interested to see how this goes and they'll start contacting the steelworkers union in other states."
Former quarterback Kain Colter, who began the union movement with the help of National College Players Association president Ramogi Huma and the United Steelworkers, was not at Northwestern on Friday.
"Today is special because college athletes exercised their rights under labor laws, rights the NCAA has fought hard to deny," Huma said in a written statement. "Today's vote clearly demonstrates that amateurism is a myth and that college athletes are employees. The NCAA cannot vacate this moment in history and its implications for the future."