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Northwestern Football Players Are 'Employees': NLRB

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Northwestern University's football players may be able to unionize after a NLRB ruling Wednesday determined that scholarship-receiving players are employees of their private university.

The National Labor Review Board found that many of the school's football players were being "paid" in the form of scholarships and working 20 to 50 hours a week to maintain the school's multimillion-dollar football program, reports CNN.

What legal ripples could this decision have for college athletes everywhere?

Why Are College Athletes 'Employees'?

Northwestern football players argued in February that they deserved recognition for the work they were performing, and they planned to unionize to further that cause. However, labor unions require the participants to be "employees," and Northwestern had argued that the student-athletes were nothing more than hard-working students.

In its decision Wednesday, the NLRB disagreed. As most college and professional athletes know, NU does not become interested in vetting a high school player based on his academic prowess but for "the benefit he might add to [Northwestern's] football program." Potential recruits are offered scholarships which can be "immediately reduced or cancelled" if a student becomes ineligible to play.

Based on this reality of college football at Northwestern, the NLRB gave the following reasons that players were actually employees:

  • Scholarships are essentially payment in exchange for playing for the school's team;
  • Players with scholarships are extensively controlled by the school and coaches, even in their private lives;
  • Student-athletes really aren't primarily "students"; and
  • Players with scholarships meet the common law definition of an employee.

The NLRB's ruling specifically excluded "walk-on" players because they are not compensated (and obligated) in the same way as players with athletic scholarships.

What's Next for NU Athletes?

Wednesday's decision also called for Northwestern's scholarship-receiving players to vote on collective bargaining, but according to CNN, the school has already planned to appeal the decision. An appeal of the NLRB decision would need to be filed by April 9 and would request that the entire board of the NLRB review the decision.

Sports Illustrated notes that this decision will only affect private school athletes, as the NLRB has no power over state-run schools.

With Northwestern's decision pending appeal and most college athletes in public schools, the fight over employee-type rights in college football is far from over.

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