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Northwestern Univ. Football Players' Unionization Push Continues

By Brett Snider, Esq. on February 14, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

College football players at Northwestern University are continuing to push for union recognition -- a strategic move that may start a new trend among college athletes.

Representation for these players have already appeared before the National Labor Relations Board to argue for unionization, but quarterback Kain Colter and possibly other players are set to testify Tuesday as part of a second NLRB hearing, Sports Illustrated reports.

So can college players unionize?

NCAA Abuses Drives Unionization Effort

If you've been following college sports for more than a minute, then you might be aware of some of the legal shenanigans which colleges have pulled with respect to their student athletes. Key to this legal conflict is the idea that college athletes are not employees of the schools or the NCAA, and are thus not entitled to many of the same rights employees would enjoy under state and federal labor laws.

A recent case between these college athletes and the NCAA involved players' likenesses being used in EA Sports' successful franchise of video game titles like "NCAA Football 13." The players settled with EA Sports but the NCAA remains on the hook for essentially selling the players' likenesses without paying them a dime.

John Adam, the attorney representing the newly formed College Athletes Players Association, affirmed that these hearings to establish CAPA as a legal union are the "beginning of the end" for the long history of players' exploitation, according to SI. But in order to unionize, Northwestern players must prove to the NLRB that they are indeed employees of their university.

Are College Athletes Employees?

CAPA's success as a union rides on the legal argument that its members are real employees. The budding union presents some compelling reasons why their members are employees. For example:

  • They perform essentially the same job as professional athletes,
  • Schools exert "extensive control" over the players,
  • Athletic responsibilities are separate from education, and
  • The players are compensated for their athletic performance through athletics-based grants and scholarships.

Much like unpaid internships, if Northwestern athletes are doing the work of a comparable professional athlete but not being paid, they may be entitled to at least the federal minimum wage for each unpaid hour.

CAPA plans to represent only Division I football and basketball players, SI reports, but its potential success as a union may lead to the creation of many other college players unions.

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