Northwestern football players can unionize

March 27, 2014 § Leave a comment


In a decision that could fundamentally change what has for decades been called the “plantation mentality” between colleges and their athletes, the National Labor Relations Board sided with a group of Northwestern football players Wednesday, calling them employees who have the right to collectively bargain.

The decision, one that could end up before the Supreme Court and might radically transform college sports, cleared the way for them to hold an election — a big step toward forming college sports’ first union.

Citing the fact that scholarships are tied to performance and the tremendous amount of time student-athletes must dedicate to football, Peter Sung Ohr, the Chicago regional director of the NLRB, ruled that football players are employees of the Evanston, Ill., university — and entitled to

union representation.

Ohr’s ruling only applies to private institutions, but Pittsburgh sports attorney Jay Reisinger said it could lead to far-reaching changes in college sports, which has long been criticized for reaping the benefits of labor without fair compensation for student athletes.

That term, “student-athletes,” is a term colleges came up with to avoid compensation, according to Northwestern. They are employees of the university, which the labor board has recognized.

“I think the importance of the decision is going to be a reformation of the NCAA and how it treats its student-athletes,” Reisinger said. “In my opinion, you’re not going to have a union like the MLBPA or the NFLPA that steps in and represents the college football and basketball players. I think this will lead to some compromise by the NCAA, and how it ultimately treats its student athletes, specifically with protecting them.”

Northwestern officials said the Big Ten school would appeal Ohr’s decision to NLRB officials in Washington, and if the agency upholds Wednesday’s ruling, the case might ultimately wind up before the United States Supreme Court.

“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” the university 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.”

Briefs in the case were filed just last week, according Reisinger, and he said the speed of the decision indicates that Ohr felt the law backed the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), and not Northwestern.

“That was pretty impressive, how quickly the NLRB came to the decision,” Reisinger said. “That’s indicative of how clearly the law favored the athletes in this situation.”

CAPA, the fledgling labor organization that hopes to unionize Northwestern football players, has a long list of demands, which include having schools take steps to minimize football-related brain injuries and coverage for former players who suffer from game-related ailments.

Outgoing Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, a leader in the drive to unionize who testified earlier this year at NLRB hearings, has said nearly all of Northwestern’s scholarship football players support the union drive.


“The system is groaning under the weight of its own hypocrisy,” said Drexel University sports management professor Ellen Staurowsky, who has written several papers advocating college sports reforms with CAPA founder Ramogi Huma, who is also the president of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group. “This ruling has the potential to clean up a system that has not been well regulated,” Staurowsky said.

Staurowsky said the ruling will probably apply only to men’s basketball and football players because those sports — and their TV contracts — serve as college athletics’ economic engine. Ohr’s decision won’t likely have an impact on non-revenue sports — including women’s sports — in the short term, she said.

“People bring up Title IX, but Title IX only speaks to a student’s access to an education, not compensation,” she said, referring to the ground-breaking 1970s legislation that guarantees women equal educational opportunities.

But the NLRB decision will ultimately affect more than just basketball and football players, said sports marketing expert Frank Vuono of 16W Marketing. “How do you differentiate them from a soccer player, a fencer, a women’s basketball player?” he asked.

“There is no doubt this decision has thrown the college sports landscape into chaos,” Vuono added.

College sports’ skyrocketing TV revenues, Reisinger said, have generated billions of dollars for universities and colleges — and are now pressuring schools to share some of that wealth with the athletes who generate it.

“Back in the ’70s, very few educational institutions in the NCAA were benefitting significantly from television contracts,” Resinger said. “But now that there’s this influx of television money, you see conferences realign themselves for the purpose of gaining more television revenue. It’s purely revenue-driven. Why should they be the only ones that benefit from it?”

The ruling, Reisinger added, pushes the NCAA to take steps to increase player health and safety as well as reform scholarship and transfer rules even if the unionization ultimately stalls.

“It’s time to share,” Reisinger said. “That’s going to be the main impact. I think it’s going to cause the NCAA to reform the way it runs itself. That may alleviate an overall unionization effort amongst college athletes throughout the country.”

Still, Staurowsky said, Ohr made history by ruling that football players are Northwestern employees.

“It’s a historic decision for student-athletes,” she said. “That’s the most important takeaway from the decision today. It has tremendous implications for the rules of college sports.” 


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