Why Northwestern Football Players Won the Right to Unionize

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Watch Money & March Madness, a FRONTLINE investigation into the big business of college sports.

A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Wednesday that scholarship football players at Northwestern University qualify as employees of the university, and as such have the right to form a union.

The decision marks a potential game-changer in the long-running debate over whether college athletes are amateurs, or whether they’re professionals entitled to some form of compensation for their work. The ruling doesn’t mean college athletes will be earning a paycheck anytime soon, but it could mark an important first step in changing the structure of college athletics. Here is a brief breakdown:

What were the arguments?

The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which brought the case, argued that college football is essentially a business that relies on the the labor of student-athletes to generate billions in annual revenues. In this system, says CAPA, football scholarships act as a form of employment pay that turn players into athletes first and students second.

Northwestern said scholarships should be considered as grants, not pay. Attorneys for the university pressed the NLRB to stick to the precedent set in a similar case brought in 2004 by graduate teaching assistants at Brown University. In that case, the NLRB ruled that even though teaching assistants worked as instructors, they were primarily on campus to learn. Moreover, teaching experience was part of their degree requirements.

How did the NLRB explain its decision?

Peter Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, ruled in a 24-page decision that the precedent set in the Brown case failed to apply to football players because unlike graduate assistants, players are not “primarily students.” Ohr explained:

The players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three or four month football season. Not only is this 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.

The NCAA was not part of the proceeding, but in a statement said, “We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees.”

What does this mean for the rest of the NCAA?

While the decision carries broad implications for scholarship players at private universities, it won’t apply to public universities because the NLRB does not govern collective bargaining at public universities. At public universities, the issue is covered by state law.

Nonetheless, the ruling is “highly significant” says ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson. He writes:

If the decision is upheld, it will give players at private universities a voice in the management of their lives as athletes and students. It will qualify players for workers’ compensation benefits for injuries that occur during their playing careers, benefits that will cover them well into their futures. Instead of coaches issuing schedules and setting rules for their private lives, the players and their union will bargain for their working conditions in the same way NFL and MLB players bargain for benefits. And, although the Northwestern players say they are not interested in payments for their efforts, the formation of a players’ union will open the way to salaries for athletes in football and men’s basketball.

What happens next?

Ohr’s decision merely gives players the right to vote on whether to organize what would be the nation’s first labor union for college athletes. Assuming they vote in favor of organizing, Northwestern has already signaled its intention to appeal the case to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. In a statement, the university said:

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.

If the NLRB upholds the decision, Northwestern could still refuse to bargain with the union. That would send the case to a federal appeals court, and likely put the issue on track for a hearing before the Supreme Court.

Evanston, Illinois, United States of America - October 05, 2013: Northwestern quarteback Kain Colter passes the ball during NCAA Football game action between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois. Ohio State defeated Northwestern 40-30. (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
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