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NLRB Declares College Athletes are Employees Entitled to Unionize

Posted  March 27, 2014

By Gordon Schnell

As if the NCAA did not have enough to worry about with the class action lawsuit filed last week attacking as an illegal price-fixing agreement the NCAA’s age-old ban on player compensation.  Now it has to deal with yesterday’s decision by the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago that Northwestern University scholarship football players are employees of the school and therefore entitled to unionize.  Taken together, these twin-attacks on the mighty NCAA may completely change the face of big-time college sports.

The well-reasoned NLRB decision was premised on a flat-out rejection of the notion that big-time college sports are amateur pursuits by “student-athletes” who are students first, and athletes a distant second.  The NLRB found just the opposite to be the case.  That in every way, the university and its scholarship athletes have an employer/employee relationship where academics and student status play little, if any, role.  The NLRB pointed to the following for support:

  • These sports programs bring in a massive amount of revenues to their universities, with Northwestern generating $235 million over the past ten years through ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales and licensing agreements.
  • In exchange for the athletic services they provide, players receive substantial compensation in the form of scholarships which can amount to as much as $76,000 per year in the form of tuition, fees, room, board and books.
  • The coaching staff has “strict and exacting control” over “every aspect of the players’ private lives” throughout the entire year.
  • The players devote 40 to 50 hours per week to their sports duties, with academics often taking a back seat, and despite the NCAA’s rules that are supposed to limit to 20 hours a week the amount of time athletes play or practice.

The NLRB ruling will clearly be appealed to the NLRB in Washington and from there will most likely wind its way through the courts and perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court.  So it is anyone’s guess how this decision will ultimately play out.  And it only covers scholarship athletes and has no direct implications for state universities which are governed by their own set of labor laws.  But one thing is certain.  If any part of this decision survives, it will forever transform the way universities have to deal with their big-time college athletes.  No longer would the schools be free to dictate the terms of the relationship in a take-it-or-leave-it manner.

Instead, the players would have the ability to band together and have a clear voice in how they are treated.  It would also allow them to qualify for long-sought-after worker’s compensation benefits that would hopefully cover them well after they leave school, where under the current system they are left unprotected and entirely on their own.  And, it would go a long way in undercutting the Orwellian concept of “amateurism” that for years the NCAA and its defenders have hidden behind to justify what can only be described as the ultimate exploitation of the so-called “student-athlete” in big time college sports.