Northwestern football players win right to form first college sports player’s union

Peter Ohr ruled that athletes are employees under common law

College football players have their daily lives mapped out between practices and games, their activities overseen by a head coach who could be could a boss, and receive scholarships and stipends in return for their time. But should they be considered employees and given the right to unionize?

According to the director for the Chicago region of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the answer is yes.

Peter Ohr ruled on March 26 that Northwestern University scholarship football players are employees of the school, and they should be allowed the right to form the first college sports player’s union, the College Athletes Players Association. In his ruling, Ohr said that the sheer amount of time that players place into the program should make them eligible for benefits.

“Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies,” Ohr said.

Ohr also pointed out that football players receive compensation from the university — thus why scholarship-receiving players will be able to join the union while non-scholarship players will not — and that Coach Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of the Northwestern staff can be considered bosses through their control of players’ personal lives and the ability to withdraw scholarships.

In addition, said Ohr, there is a marked difference between football and academics, even if Northwestern tries to claim there is not. “The fact that the players undoubtedly learn great life lessons from participating on the football team and take with them important values such as character, dedication, perseverance, and team work, is insufficient to show that their relationship with the employer is primarily an academic one,” Ohr said.

Northwestern plans to appeal the decision, which will go to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. “While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” Northwestern spokesman Alan J. Cubbage said in a statement. “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 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) also released a statement, saying it was disappointed with the ruling.

Although Northwestern players are primarily seeking medical coverage and not full pay for football players, the precedential ruling could have a long-reaching impact. Many issues that come with employment, such as worker’s compensation, individuals’ promotional rights, and others, have not been challenged in court. With the successful formation of a union, colleges could see a host of legal challenges from student-athletes. If Northwestern fails its appeal to the full NLRB, don’t be surprised if this case makes its way up the legal chain, potentially to the Supreme Court, because of this potential impact.

It is important to note that Ohr’s decision would currently only applies precedent for scholarship football and men’s basketball players at private universities. Athletes at public universities would be considered public employees, and their unionization process would not be covered under this ruling.

Disclosure: The author is a recent graduate of Northwestern and personally knows many people involved in the case, both within the Northwestern leadership as well as multiple school-affiliated athletes.

 

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Zach Warren

Zach Warren is Assistant Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, where he oversees online content submissions and administers InsideCounsel's enewsletters. Zach specializes in new media and multimedia...

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