College Athletes Score Right to Unionize

Education, News

Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Peter Ohr ruled last Wednesday that football players on scholarship at Northwestern University have the right to form a union and bargain collectively. The decision has limited immediate repercussions but could be the start of drastic changes for student athletes and their universities’ sports programs.

NLRB Ruling: Players Are Employees

Ohr ruled that the players are in fact employees of the university, not simply students. The student athletes spend significantly more time on football (upwards of 50 hours per week) than on academics and are subject to strict rules from their coaches and the university that don’t apply to other students. If they break the rules, they risk losing their scholarships.

The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), led by former Northwestern football player Kain Colter, submitted a petition to the NLRB in January. A large majority of the football team signed the petition, seeking fewer hours of practice and better health care. At the contentious hearing in February, attorneys representing the interests of the CAPA argued that student athletes on scholarship are actually employees of the university and should therefore have some of the privileges of employment.

The immediate impact of the decision is to allow players the opportunity to cast secret votes on whether to unionize. The future ramifications are still unclear. If everything goes in the athletes’ favor, they could eventually see better health care and medical coverage as well as the possibility of financial compensation and endorsement deals.

Only Northwestern Football Players Affected – For Now

For now, the decision affects only these football players at Northwestern University. It may be the first step towards a wider student athlete union encompassing more schools, but even then there would be restrictions. Only private universities are governed by he NLRB; student athletes at public universities would have to negotiate with the state.

Money is also at the heart of the issue. Many student athletes feel that they are not fairly compensated by the NCAA and other conferences, which make billions of dollars off of high-profile college athletics like football and basketball. (The television contract for men’s college football alone is worth $7.3 billion over 10 years.) It’s unlikely that student athletes in lower profile sports would benefit from this decision.

The NCAA, though not a party in the CAPA/NLRB case, stated its disappointment in the decision. Northwestern University is also “disappointed,” and does not agree with the idea that student athletes are employees. The University will appeal the decision to the national NLRB in Washington.

Hope Despite Large Obstacles

Northwestern’s appeal could prevent a vote in the first place, but if there is a vote for unionizing, that decision will likely be impounded until the NLRB makes a final ruling. If the ruling is upheld, Northwestern can refuse to bargain with the union. The case would likely then go to federal appears court. The process could take a year or longer.

That will pose a challenge to the burgeoning union, as constant turnover, will be a factor. Many of students standing together now may be gone by the time any definitive decision is reached. The union will have difficulties forming a loyal base for long-term success. Still, last week’s decision offers hope to student athletes across the country hoping to unionize.