Preliminary ruling in favor of Northwestern football unionization (updates below)

This just in. The Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that those Northwestern football players on scholarship are ’employees’ under the National Labor Relations Act.

The ruling, by the regional director Peter Ohr, says in part:

“The players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three or four month football 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.”

In contrasting the current case with a ruling about Brown University graduate assistants, who were not deemed employees by the NLRB, Ohr wrote:

“the players’ football-related duties are unrelated to their academic studies unlike the graduate assistants whose teaching and research duties were inextricably tied to their graduate degree requirements.”

Needless to say, the decision will now be subject to appeal. But the decision is a landmark one. It specifically orders that the scholarship players who have not exhausted their eligibility are now able to vote to unionize under the direction of the NLRB’s regional office.

If the players vote to do so, Northwestern University will be compelled to negotiate with the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), who would represent the players. And all football programs at private universities would be similarly affected.

More to come.

Update: QB Kain Colter, the face of the Northwestern players’ efforts, is on ESPN now. In discussing the basic protections that players hoped to secure, Colter said the “medical side” was the first priority. He pointed out that “right now, the NCAA doesn’t guarantee that any of your medical bills will be paid, whether you’re a current player or a former player.” Colter also identified the need for greater academic support, noting that nationally, the graduation rate for football players is 50% and that these players were not, therefore, being set up for success after football.

Later update: Lester Munson has a primer on some of the key issues raised by today’s ruling. Munson says that while there will be appeals – I’ve read elsewhere that the path would be through the national NLRB, to the seventh circuit and then eventually, if they granted cert, the Supreme Court – the odds are stacked against Northwestern. Munson also elaborates what’s at stake in the ruling:

If the decision is upheld, it will give players at private universities a voice in the management of their lives as athletes and students. It will qualify players for workers’ compensation benefits for injuries that occur during their playing careers, benefits that will cover them well into their futures. Instead of coaches issuing schedules and setting rules for their private lives, the players and their union will bargain for their working conditions in the same way NFL and MLB players bargain for benefits. And, although the Northwestern players say they are not interested in payments for their efforts, the formation of a players’ union will open the way to salaries for athletes in football and men’s basketball.



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