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College Athletes Can Join Union, NLRB Declares

Volume 2, Issue 7
April 15th, 2014
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Many people in the U.S. heard of the National Labor Relations Board for the first time after it held that college football players can join a union.

helmetOn March 26 a Chicago-area NLRB regional director said football players for Northwestern University who receive grants-in-aid are employees and thus can form a bargaining unit.

Although the decision came from a regional official, it is virtually assured that he acted with the knowledge and approval of his boss, general counsel Richard Griffin, and quite likely the pro-union board majority as well.

The decision excludes walk-on players because only players receiving grant-in-aid scholarships were deemed employees of the university, and walk-ons don’t receive those scholarships.

Factors cited include the football program not being run by faculty members, players do not get academic credit for participating, and players lose their scholarships if they leave the team, which doesn’t occur with academic scholarships.

The players were deemed “not primarily students,” because they spend only 20 hours a week in class and 50-60 hours or more in football activities.

Another major factor was the enormous revenue football generates for the same university that places strict limits on players’ compensation. In 2003-12 Northwestern’s program generated about
$235 million in revenue for the university from ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales and licensing agreements.

If as expected the full board will uphold the decision, you can be assured the matter will end up in court. As you can well imagine, if the decision is allowed to stand it will impact all of college sports.

One problem is that many of the restrictions university programs routinely place on players’ behavior – some imposed by the schools, others mandated by the NCAA — would be considered violations of employee rights under labor law.

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