Board Rules Athletes At Northwestern University Are Employees

The decision still must be approved by the full NLRB board in Washington, D.C. The regional director ruled football players at Northwestern qualify as employees and may therefore unionize.

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A major ruling by a federal agency could turn the multibillion dollar business of college sports upside down. The top National Labor Relations Board official in Chicago says college football players on scholarship at Northwestern University can unionize.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: In a 24-page decision, Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University meet the broad definition of employees under federal law.

ROGER KAY: And if the ruling is upheld, these college football players can then vote to be represented by a union which can then collectively bargain on their behalf. So the ramifications of this ruling are huge.

HANK PERRITT: I think this is a big decision.

SCHAPER: Hank Perritt is a professor and expert in labor law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

PERRITT: This is a watershed in terms of a controversy that's been brewing about how college football players ought to be able to participate in the allocation of the revenue resulting from their efforts.

SCHAPER: In siding with the athletes, the NLRB's Ohr ruled that the football players have primarily an economic relationship with the university.

Northwestern rakes in big bucks off of football - $235 million in revenue from 2003 to 2012, according to the ruling. And while the players are compensated in the form of tuition scholarships, the players argued there isn't much that is academic about them. And Ohr agreed.

Fordham University law professor James Brudney explains.

JAMES BRUDNEY: The responsibilities tied to those scholarships are athletically based more than educationally based - that what they have to do in response is not really to attend classes, it's to travel to win football games, it's to spend 40 or 50 hours a week on training.

SCHAPER: In other words, when it comes to earning and keeping a football scholarship, it's performance on the field, not in the classroom, that matters.

And while they're playing, the ruling noted that the university has enormous control over almost every facet of the players' daily lives - including their class schedules, long hours of practice and training, where they live, and even what they eat.

KAIN COLTER: Student-athletes don't have a voice, they don't have a seat at the table.

SCHAPER: This is outgoing Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter speaking at a news conference in January, announcing that he and his teammates were petitioning the NLRB to seek union representation.

Colter has been the lead advocate for the student athletes to join the newly formed College Athletes Players Association.

COLTER: The current model resembles a dictatorship where the NCAA places these rules and regulations on these students without their input or without their negotiation.

SCHAPER: Upon hearing of the NLRB ruling yesterday afternoon, Colter tweeted that, this is a huge win for all college athletes. He later told ESPN the primary reason he wants college athletes to unionize is to ensure that players' medical needs from concussions and other debilitating injuries are covered long after their playing days are over.

That's a concern shared by student athletes at other universities, and in other sports too, as is having a greater voice in how they're treated, used and compensated by their schools. And while they're watching this case closely, none thus far have taken this kind of a step toward unionization.

Northwestern University, the Big Ten Conference, and the NCAA all disagree with the ruling that the student-athletes are university employees who can unionize under federal law.

In a statement, Northwestern says the university plans to appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., while continuing to explore other legal options.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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