NU football players can unionize, NLRB says

March 26, 2014 (EVANSTON, Ill.)

The National Labor Relations Board determined Wednesday that Northwestern University football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees of the school. The ruling could pave the way for NU players to become the first college athletes' union.

Former Northwestern Quarterback Kain Colter, who was the face of players' effort, said in a statement today "This is a win for both the players and the football program." Northwestern says it will appeal the ruling to the full NLRB in Washington, and the case could ultimately end up in federal court.

Union lawyers argued the Big Ten school's football players help generate heft profits for the school through their labor. Northwestern, NCAA, and Big Ten Conference opposed the argument, and NU argued that college students can't be put in the same category as factory workers.

The 26-page ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board found Northwestern's football players are indeed employees with a right to unionize, in part because the university exerts employer-like control over the players.

"Control over their time, control over their scheduling, control over what they can do with their private lives, what they can post on Twitter," said Prof. Henry H. Perritt, Jr., IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Reaction to the ruling was swift. Former senator and U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander called it "an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics."

The university had argued a union would detract from the academic focus of student-athletes, and in a statement Wednesday said: "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."

"Colleges are going to have a very difficult time dealing with unions of athletes. They've always had a difficult time dealing with unions of faculty," said Lester Munson, ESPN senior writer and legal analyst.

Among the players' demands is long-term medical care for injuries. They did not ask for salaries, but the issue of compensation looms large.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars come into the schools, and now the players want a part of that," said Munson.

The school argued that participating in a sport is part of the overall experience of being a student, not a separate activity.

Northwestern says it will appeal the ruling to the full NLRB in Washington, and the case could ultimately end up in federal court.

The ruling does not have direct implications for public universities, only private, because of different labor laws governing the public sector.

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