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Labor & Worker Rights Fri Mar 28 2014

Labor Board: Northwestern Football Players Are University Employees, Can Unionize

terry johnson flickr.jpg
Photo/ Terry Johnston via Flickr

In a precedent-setting decision, the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled Wednesday that college athletes who receive scholarships to play for private universities qualify as employees under the National Labor Relations Act and have the right to unionize.

Northwestern football players, including star quarterback Kain Colter, came forward in January with the College Athletes Players Association seeking formal union recognition from the NLRB.

During his day-long testimony, Colter said the athletic demands on Northwestern football players more closely resembled that of a labor force than of students playing for fun. Colter talked about rigorous time commitments, saying that football practice attendance was mandatory during regular season for players receiving scholarships, regardless of whether or not practice conflicted with players' class schedule.

Colter testified that his coaches urged him to take less demanding classes, prioritizing athletics over education. He said the considerable athletic-oriented obligations prevented him from pursuing a pre-med major.

Northwestern University argued that players are primarily student athletes and not employees and therefore don't have the right to organize a union.

But NLRB Director Peter Sung Ohr found enough evidence to rule that Northwestern football players are indeed employees of the university.

In his ruling, Ohr wrote that college football players are essentially the labor force behind a very profitable industry and "fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act's broad definition of 'employee' when one considers the common law definition of 'employee."

Ohr cited players' athletic time commitment - between 20 and 50 hours per week - and the fact that scholarships are directly tied to performance on the field as reasons why players qualify as university employees and not "primarily students", as argued by Northwestern.

"The NCAA invented the term student-athlete to prevent the exact ruling that was made," Ramogi Huma, president of both the National College Players Association, a nonprofit advocacy group working to reform NCAA rules, and the newly formed College Athletes Players Association, said in a statement. "For 60 years, people have bought into the notion that they are students only. The reality is players are employees, and today's ruling confirms that. The players are one giant step closer to justice."

Following the ruling, Northwestern issued a statement contesting the NLRB's decision.

"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it," said Alan K. Cubbage, vice president for university relations. "Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes."

The NCAA also released a statement opposing the NLRB's ruling.

"While not party to the proceeding....we strongly disagree with the notion that student athletes are employees," NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said.

Northwestern said it would appeal to the NLRB in Washington, D.C., though any appeal could take years.

If upheld, the decision would only apply to private universities -- public universities are subject to state labor laws. Still, many speculate this ruling could spark similar actions at other colleges across the country, possibly signaling a major game changer for the future of college athletics.


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