Unprecedented Ruling Allows NCAA Athletes to Unionize

The National Labor Relations Board’s Chicago district director ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University football players qualify as employees who have the right to unionize.

The decision could open the door to significant changes in college athletics. It strikes a blow to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which argues that its athletes are amateurs.

In his ruling, regional director Peter Sung Ohr wrote:

“[P]layers receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees.”

While the decision doesn’t actually create a union for Northwestern’s student athletes, it does give them the right to vote whether or not they want to organize. The decision is an unprecedented victory for college athletes, but a preliminary hearing at that. Northwestern announced it will appeal the decision to the National Labor Relation Board (NLRB), after which, the case will move on to federal court.

The decision could have a huge impact on the larger issue of player compensation. Although there is still a long way to go for a final decision to be made, and for student athletes to actually unionize, the decision is the first time student athletes have officially been declared “employees.” The NCAA is currently engaged in a federal antitrust suit, filed by college basketball and football players, who are arguing that the NCAA has unlawfully capped player compensation at the value of a scholarship. If, in fact, this petition establishes precedent that student athletes are employees, the NCAA’s economic model might be destroyed, and players could in fact be paid for their performances.

The Northwestern case was filed less than two months ago by The College Athletes Players Association, and led by Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (Fusion’s Alicia Menendez interviewed National College Players Association president Ramogi Huma when the petition was filed, which can be seen in the video above). The student athletes want the right to organize in order to address issues such as the quality of health care, scholarships and education funding after they stop playing.

Northwestern and the NCAA argued in opposition of the players saying that they are “primarily students.”

The NLRB, in it’s decision, supported the opportunity for players to unionize because

1. Scholarships constitute compensation for a service provided by the school

2. Coaches, as representatives of the school, have control over athletes similar to an employer’s control over an employee

3. Scholarship athletes are not “primarily students”

You can read the full decision here:

NLRB finds for student athletes unionization

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