WASHINGTON — Northwestern University on Thursday urged the National Labor Relations Board to overturn a regional ruling that would allow its scholarship football players to unionize, holding up the football program as exemplifying the university’s integration of athletics and education.
In a 60-page brief filed with the labor board in Washington just hours ahead of a midnight deadline, the university laid out its opposition to student athletes forming a union and asked to argue its case before the board.
The regional director’s decision “transforms what has always been a cooperative educational relationship between university and student into an adversarial employer-employee relationship,” the university said in the brief.
Northwestern’s brief was one of several filed Thursday by organizations on both sides of a March 26 ruling by a regional director of the labor board that could revolutionize college sports. The director ruled that football players who receive full scholarships to the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can unionize.
An employee is regarded by law as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers. In the case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers and scholarships are a form of compensation.
An organization of college presidents filed a friend-of-the-court brief taking strong issue with the regional director’s ruling.
“Student-athletes participate for their own benefit; they do not render services for compensation,” said the 1,800 member American Council on Education. They “are not employees and therefore not subject to the National Labor Relations Act.”
The full labor board is weighing the case but has no deadline for a ruling.
In asking the board to overturn the ruling, Northwestern University said that its Chicago-region director “overlooked or ignored key evidence that Northwestern presented showing that its student-athletes are primarily students, not employees.”
Instead the regional director’s decision “relied incorrectly on a common-law definition of employee that considered the amount of control an employer has over an employee,” said Northwestern, which is located in Evanston, Illinois.
In its own brief, the fledgling College Athletes Players Association argued that Northwestern football is a commercial enterprise from which the university derives substantial financial benefits. “They are entitled to representation … the regional director’s decision should be affirmed,” the union said.
At its core, the players’ union said, “this case involves the same questions that arise in every representation case: Do the players perform services for the university? Do they work under the university’s supervision and direction? Do they receive compensation for their work?”
Answering in the affirmative, the players’ union said that under federal law, the players are entitled to vote on whether to unionize “and to pursue a collective voice to address their working conditions.”
The Northwestern college athletes on scholarship did hold an election in the spring. However, the ballot box was sealed pending a final NLRB decision.
In other voices in the case:
- The AFL-CIO labor union asserted in its brief that the Northwestern football program “functions as a largely autonomous commercial enterprise that is affiliated with and generates revenue for the university. There is no question that the players…’work for’ the Northwestern football program in much the same way as professional athletes.”
- Republican members on the House Education and Workforce Committee, led by its chairman, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., urged the labor board to rule against the college athletes’ union. “The profound and inherent differences between the student-university and employee-employer relationship makes employee status unworkable both as a matter of laws and in practice.”
- Republican members of the Senate Labor Committee also sided with Northwestern, saying in its court filing, “Congress never intended for college athletes to be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and doing so is incompatible with the student-university relationship.”
- A coalition of unions representing major league professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey players filed its own brief supporting the players, noting that Northwestern should be able “to negotiate clearly delineated contract terms” with the university “that respect each other’s vital concerns and include a fair and effective dispute resolution mechanism.”
Associated Press Education Writer Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.