A Big W for College Athletes as University Employees

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The National Labor Relations Board in Chicago has ruled that Northwestern University’s football players are employees who can unionize.

March 26 may go down in college sports infamy, as the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board made a groundbreaking ruling that Northwestern University football players are employees of the school, and as such, they can move forward with their unionization efforts.

Peter Ohr, regional director of the Chicago NLRB, said the football players are not primarily students. He described them as employees of the university whose work generates a significant chunk of money for the school – $235 million between 2003 and 2012.

Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, a Northwestern alum, said it’s easy to see why the football players are not mainly students. Just do the math, he said.

  • Before school starts in the fall, players spend about 50 to 60 hours a week on football during a training camp.
  • Players are required to spend anywhere from 40 to 50 hours on football during the four-month season.

“Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies,” Ohr wrote.

Compare this with the 20-something hours per week dedicated to class and homework.

The ruling has the potential to change the landscape of the National Collegiate Athletic Association; the organization may be forced to sit down at the bargaining table with college athletes. Finally.

Sports Illustrated columnist Andy Staples said the ruling has presented a prime opportunity for the NCAA to re-evaluate and redesign the business model for major college athletics, before it’s smashed to pieces.

The people in charge of college sports didn’t heed the old saw about what happens to pigs and what happens to hogs. The conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches, and NCAA officials have had a great run of about 15 years in which their revenues have soared while their labor costs remained mostly flat. A lot of that money went into their pockets.

It’s a sentiment shared by most of Staples’ counterparts. New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden described the scholarship athlete as the centerpiece of an on-campus entertainment system that is reliant on unpaid workers to turn a profit for the NCAA and universities. Rhoden said:

I don’t advocate pay for play. The opportunity to earn a degree from the nation’s finest universities is an unparalleled opportunity. But the NCAA must loosen its iron-fisted grip on revenue-producing athletes, must give them more rights, more benefits and greater flexibility to sign with agents and explore the possibility of turning pro without losing eligibility.

The College Athletes Players Association, led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, is not asking for salaries for players. According to Rhoden, the association is pushing to be able to organize players to negotiate for guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, develop better procedures to reduce head injuries, and allow players to pursue commercial sponsorships.

It also would like to see universities pay the full cost of attendance for its athletes, as well as putting money in a trust that players can access only after they earn their degrees. Sounds pretty reasonable, no?

This week’s ruling will not have any immediate effect. Northwestern can and likely will appeal. But it appears that the university will face an uphill battle on appeal.

While Northwestern boasts an impressive 97 percent graduation rate for its student-athletes and a top-notch education, the NLRB doesn’t care, SI said. Its only concern is “whether there is an exchange of compensation that provides a financial benefit to the employer,” SI explained.

What do you think of the labor board’s ruling? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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