Board Rules That Northwestern's Football Players Can Unionize

"It cannot be said the employer’s scholarship players are 'primarily students,'" the ruling said. Northwestern University will appeal.

AP Photo/Paul Beaty

Kain Colter

WASHINGTON — A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that college football players at Northwestern University are employees and have the right to unionize.

The precedent-setting ruling could mean major changes in college sports, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association has worked hard to maintain the view that their athletes are amateurs.

Wednesday's ruling argues that the relationship between players and the university is primarily an economic one, in which the players often work more hours than other full-time employees have to, and are subject to control and regulations of their day-to-day activities that the rest of the student population is not.

"It cannot be said the Employer's scholarship players are 'primarily students,'" the ruling, written by Region 13 Director Peter Sung Ohr, reads.

But the ruling is only a first step. Northwestern University said in a statement it will appeal, sending the decision to the NLRB headquarters in Washington, D.C. It could take another several months before a final ruling is made.

"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it," Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations 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."

Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, echoed Northwestern's dissatisfaction.

"While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees," Remy said in a statement. "We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees. "We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid."

The complaint began when Northwestern players attempted to join the College Athletes Players Association, which has been spearheaded by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. Colter has participated in the NLRB hearings and argued in the past that he was forced to drop his pre-med courses because of his football schedule.

The athletes have also received assistance from the United Steelworkers and the National College Players Association during their efforts.

Read the full decision here:



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