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Northwestern Football Players Are University Employees, NLRB Rules


In a landmark decision Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University football players with scholarships should be considered employees of the university instead of primarily student-athletes, and can thus form a union at their discretion.

While this is just the first step in what's sure to be a drawn-out legal process, it's the most direct challenge to the NCAA's long-standing economic model to date. Allowing certain college athletes to unionize could revolutionize the future of college sports.

Gabe Feldman, the director of Tulane's Sports Law program, shared part of the NLRB's decision on Twitter:

In his decision, Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director for the NLRB's Region 13, determined that "the scholarships the players receive is compensation for the athletic services they perform." He also noted that the Northwestern football players typically devoted 40 to 50 hours per week to football, which is not only "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." Thus, Northwestern cannot consider them "primarily students" who "spend only a limited number of hours performing their athletic duties."

However, Ohr ruled that the only football players who can be considered employees of the university are scholarship players. Walk-on players cannot be considered employees because "they do not receive compensation for the athletic services that they perform." Walk-ons also "appear to be permitted a greater amount of flexibility by the football coaches when it comes to missing portions of practices and workouts during the football season if they conflict with their class schedule," he noted.

Thus, only players who are currently receiving scholarships and have not exhausted their NCAA eligibility will be permitted to vote on whether to establish a union. Ohr ruled for an immediate election by secret ballot among said players.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who led the charge to form a union, tweeted his appreciation for the NLRB's decision on Wednesday:

The university, on the other hand, was much less thrilled with the NLRB's decision. Alan K. Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, released a statement on Wednesday afternoon about it:

"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. 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.

Northwestern plans to appeal today's decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The University will continue to explore all of its legal options in regard to this issue."

Northwestern has until April 9 to appeal the decision.

As noted by Yahoo Sports' Rand Gatlin, the NLRB's decision has the potential to have a wide-ranging impact beyond just the Northwestern football team:

Back when Colter and co. filed their initial petition with the NLRB, the NCAA's chief legal officer, Donald Remy, spoke out against the movement:

"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize. ... Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes."

Remy may end up being right when it's all said and done, but Round 1 went to the athletes on Wednesday.

Photo: Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter looks on while United Steelworkers political director Tim Waters speaks during a news conference in Chicago in Jan. 2014. Calling the NCAA a "dictatorship," a handful of Northwestern football players announced they are forming the first labor union for college athletes—one they hope will eventually represent players nationwide. —Paul Beaty/AP-File

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