Labor/Employment » NLRB: Northwestern University Football Players Are Employees, Can Unionize

NLRB: Northwestern University Football Players Are Employees, Can Unionize

March 28, 2014

In a decision that could lead to major upheaval in how college athletes are paid, a regional NLRB director found that Northwestern University football players can be considered employees of the school and must be allowed to unionize. The NCAA has held that “student-athletes” may receive payment only in the form of school scholarships, room-and-board, and other fees, such as textbooks. But in a 24-page ruling, NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr, noted that players’ rigorous practice schedules – often more than 40 hours a week – exceeded the amount of time spent studying. “It cannot be said that the employer’s scholarship players are ‘primarily students,’” Ohr wrote.

Northwestern said it will appeal the ruling to the NLRB board in Washington, but Tim Waters, political director for the United Steelworkers, which has worked on rights for college athletes, told the New York Times the secret vote green-lit by the NLRB’s decision would take place soon. A player’s group, the College Athletes Players Association, has said it will push for limited practice hours and better health care, as well as a fund to help former athletes earn degrees. A Sports Illustrated legal analyst said the school almost certainly has the votes to approve unionization.

From here, other private schools in major conferences like USC or Vanderbilt could pursue union votes. Though the regional NLRB director’s decision does not hold sway in other districts, it could be used as precedent. State schools, however, are subject to state labor laws and not NLRB decisions.

Critics of the NCAA’s stance on college athletes have said players deserve the chance to financially benefit from the results of their talent, especially given that college athletics generates billions in revenue for the NCAA and the athletic conferences  The television contract for college football’s playoff system, which debuts  in the 2014 post-season, is valued at $7.3 billion over 10 years, and the annual March Madness college basketball tournament is worth $10.8 billion over 14 years.

The union effort at Northwestern is one of several lawsuits targeting the NCAA.  Another challenges restrictions barring athletes from profiting off their image or reputation, including through the sale of merchandise and autographs. Earlier this month a prominent sports lawyer filed an antitrust suit against the NCAA and the five “power” conferences, claiming the restrictions on paying players is unconstitutional. The NCAA has also been targeted with lawsuits relating to player head injuries.

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