The Chicago regional chapter of the National Labor Relations Board has approved the petition from a group of Northwestern University football players seeking to form a union, a preliminary but unprecedented victory for college athletes that could lead to the formation of the first players’ union in college sports history.
The College Athletes Players Association, led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and National Collegiate Players Association director Ramogi Huma, himself a former college football player, argued in front of the NLRB that college athletes fit the definition of employees under federal labor law and as such should have the right to organize and bargain with their employer, in this case Northwestern University. That university and the NCAA argued that the players are students first, not employees of the university, and shouldn’t have that right.
The NLRB examiner agreed with the players.
“[P]layers receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees,” the decision said.
The NLRB agreed with the basic aspects of the arguments advocates for unionization have made: that scholarships constitute compensation for a service provided to the school, that coaches (as representatives of the school) have control over athletes similar to an employer’s control over an employee, and that scholarship athletes are not “primarily students.” The decision also relies on the amount of time athletes devote to sports. All of that combines to make the athletes employees under the National Labor Relations Act, which governs employees at private universities (athletes seeking to organize at public universities would be subject to state labor laws).
The full decision can be read here.
The decision doesn’t automatically create a union. It simply gives Northwestern’s players the right to hold a vote to decide if they want to organize. Northwestern issued a statement saying that it disagreed with the decision and plans to appeal. The NLRB will hear the appeal in Washington. Further appeals could take it into the judicial system and it’s possible the case could find its way all the way to the Supreme Court, so a final verdict in the case isn’t likely any time soon.
The players wanted the right to organize to address a multitude of issues they say the NCAA and its member universities have neglected, from health care and education issues to compensation. Their primary claim is that organization would give athletes a voice in the NCAA system that they’ve never had before, and while this decision isn’t final, it is no doubt a major hurdle cleared on the path to forming a players union.