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Hitting the Links: NLRB Rules Northwestern Players are Employees

Digesting the important NLRB ruling from this week that states Northwestern football players are employees.

David Banks


By now I'm sure you've seen the headlines and even read a few stories on the subject. Earlier in the week the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as employees and therefore can unionize.

Patrick Vint from SB Nation has a piece that explains what this all means. A quick summary for you:

  • The NLRB had to 'prove' that NW football players were employees
  • NW players spent an ungodly amount of time practicing, training, playing football, etc.
  • The focus on football takes away from the players' academic pursuits
  • The letter of intent and scholarship is the contract, the hours of practice and play generate revenue which is the employer's benefits, the coach's rules are the control, and the scholarship itself is the pay.

Northwestern University tried to argue that a previous case where the NLRB rejected unionization by grad students at Brown University set the precedent, but Region 13 Director Peter Sung Ohr disagreed with his ruling. Vint goes on to explain:

Northwestern had argued that a previous case was the proper precedent. In a prior decision, the NLRB had rejected a unionization attempt by graduate students working as teaching and research assistants at Brown University. In that decision, the NLRB found that the employees were primarily students, their roles were tied to their education, their supervisors were school faculty, and their wages were the same financial support given to those who were not working those jobs. Because the graduate students were students first and employees second, they were not employees.

Ohr rejected the argument here, and in doing so, laid bare what he deemed the fallacy at the heart of the sport: That football has anything at all to do with academics. He held that Northwestern football players, who spend 40 to 60 hours a week on football duties during the season and repeatedly adjust their class schedules to make time for football activities, are not primarily students, and that their compensation -- scholarships -- is not financial aid. The scholarships are provided not for the players' academic performance -- in fact, many of the players would not even be admitted to Northwestern were it not for their football prowess -- but for their performance of services for Northwestern on the field of play.

By splitting football from academics, Ohr has made every college football player the equivalent of every other student who is busing tables or working in a call center to pay for school. And that is revolutionary.

So where do we go from here?

In the case of Northwestern the NLRB has directed a vote to unionize be held among football players who have not exhausted their eligibility and some expect them to gain enough votes. However, most don't expect this to go so smoothly as any additional benefits the players negotiate with their school could make them ineligible to play football under NCAA guidelines, plus the fact that Northwestern University plans on appealing the NLRB decision anyway and this case could get tied up in higher courts for 2-3 years or longer. Some expect the case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress and that's going to take a while.

In the larger scope this NLRB decision only applies to football players at private schools so places like Notre Dame, USC, Vanderbilt, Duke, etc. could work toward forming a union but it is important to note that Directors in other NLRB districts are not required to follow the Chicago region decision so results could vary all across the country.

It's also important to note that public schools (the vast majority of football participants at the D-1 level) are not directly affected by this decision and are still bound by their separate state labor laws which adds another incredibly complex layer to any future unionization efforts.

There's no doubt that this is a hot-button topic and many people have opinions that are all over the map on this subject. While I don't necessarily agree that this is a massive landmark decision and that college sports will never be the same it was nevertheless an important decision that will get the attention of the NCAA and University leaders.

We may be years away from seeing any change but as Andy Staples from writes, it might be a good time for the NCAA to start negotiating with players before this gets too messy and out of their control:

Still, the ruling should serve as the tipping point for the NCAA and the leaders of the schools in the five wealthiest conferences to realize it's time to stop fighting and start bargaining. If the people in charge of college sports don't want to see the system they've created come crashing down in a courtroom or a bureaucrat's office or in the halls of Congress, it's time to invite the athletes to the table -- unionized or not -- and hammer out a deal with which everyone can live. If not, their disappointment will only continue.

...The schools and NCAA could fight these cases, but there will only be more. The lawyers smell money, and they aren't going away until they get it. The players are compensated with tuition, room and board, but they haven't gotten a raise since the 1950s. Now, they're the stars of a wildly popular series of television shows. In a courtroom, outside the insular system that is college athletics, the NCAA's arguments sound ludicrous.

...So what should the schools and NCAA do? Do they fight until the bitter end and watch their system get demolished? Or do they do what they should have done years ago and collectively bargain with the athletes? At this point, Huma's group isn't asking for players to receive a salary. "The parties at the table that matter are the NCAA, the schools and us," Huma said. "And none of us are talking about salaries."

Any solutions get foggy when Title IX and non-revenue athletes are brought into the discussion. Be that as it may, it appears as though the slow wheels of change are beginning to turn on how college football players are treated by their schools. Buckle up, it's going to be a long and fascinating ride.


Sad story as Navy football player Will McKamey passed away after collapsing at practice.

UMass will be leaving the MAC following the 2015 season.

Wisconsin head football coach Gary Andersen got a raise.

Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy will be working for the SEC Network this year.

Jim Tressel wants to be the President of the University of Akron.

LP Field in Nashville has designs to host a kickoff-style game for college football.

Did you see who the sponsor for the college football playoffs and trophy will be? It's Dr. Pepper!


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