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A Better Partnership


Mar 2014
March 28, 2014

NLRB Ruling That College Athletes are Employees Could Have Major Implications for Sports and Higher Education

A National Labor Relations Board ruling that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are “employees” who may unionize could transform college sports and create an entirely new landscape of labor and funding challenges for school administrators.

NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr said the 85 Northwestern football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships met the definition of “employee” under the National Labor Relations Act and, therefore, have the same collective bargaining rights as other workers. Those players receive up to $61,000 annually in scholarships, but Ohr said they spend long hours practicing and playing a game that generates millions of dollars in revenue for the university.

“As the record demonstrates, players 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 within the meaning of the act,” Ohr said in his 24-page decision. Read his ruling here.

Northwestern officials said the football players aren’t entitled to collective bargaining because:
  • Athletes are akin to graduate students, whom the NLRB had previously ruled were not school employees under the NLRA;
  • The players are temporary workers, who are not entitled to collective bargaining;
  • And the proposed collective bargaining unit was arbitrary.

Northwestern plans to appeal Ohr’s ruling to the full NLRB, in Washington, D.C., and will “explore all of its legal options,” according to a school spokesman.

Because the NLRA covers private sector employees, Ohr’s ruling only applies to Northwestern and other private college and universities. But it set a precedent that could sweep the country and transform college sports.

The case is far from over. The full NLRB could overturn the regional director’s ruling, the issue could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the university could refuse to bargain with the players’ union, and Congress could get involved. 

The two sides have until April 9 to request a review by the full NLRB. The case is Northwestern University v. College Athletes Players Association, case number 13-RC-121359, before the National labor Relations Board.

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