National Labor Relations Board Rules College Football Players Can Unionize because They Work for Employers

Friday, March 28, 2014
Ramogi Huma and Kain Colter (AP photo)

Likening the receipt of scholarship money to an employer paycheck, a federal labor regulatory official ruled this week that college football players can form unions.


The surprising decision, which has huge financial implications for big-money college sports, came about after football players at Northwestern University petitioned a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).


That official, Peter Sung Ohr in Chicago, ruled players receiving scholarships are entitled to hold elections and decide whether to bargain collectively with the universities they attend.


Robert McCormick, a professor emeritus at the Michigan State University College of Law who focuses on sports and labor law, said Ohr’s decision was “revolutionary for college sports.”


Experts say the ruling could be applied to student athletes throughout the nation, and could open up other new issues, such as players seeking workers’ compensation coverage for sports-related injuries.


Officials at Northwestern University opposed the move by football players.


“Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students,” the university said in a statement. “Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”


The school is expected to appeal Ohr’s ruling to the NLRB in Washington. And if Northwestern loses there as well, expect a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Northwestern players are backed by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), a union funded by Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and advocate for players’ rights. The union’s star witness, prior to the ruling, was former quarterback Kain Colter, who testified that his grueling 50-60-hour work week as a football player amounted to a job that resulted in sacrificing his life dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.


CAPA’s legal expenses in the NLRB battle are being paid by the United Steelworkers.


Northwestern will be strongly backed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in its fight to prevent players from unionizing.


Such a drastic change could impact the enormous sums of money that colleges and the NCAA earn off sports. The NCAA’s television deal just to air football playoff games is worth $7.3 billion over 10 years, while the NCAA’s basketball tournament’s coverage hauls in even more: $10.8 billion over 14 years.


A leading college basketball analyst, Jay Bilas at ESPN, warned the NLRB ruling, if it stands, could drastically alter the power of the NCAA.


“It’s another brick being taken out of the castle the NCAA has constructed,” Bilas told The New York Times. “It’s not going to stand forever, and we’re getting closer and closer to it tumbling.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Northwestern Ruling Could 'Rattle the Universe of Universities' (by Alejandra Cancino, Chicago Tribune)

College Players Granted Right to Form Union (by Ben Strauss and Steve Eder, New York Times)

Northwestern University Ruling (National Labor Relations Board)


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