Members of Northwestern University’s Wildcats have scored a touchdown for the burgeoning college athlete labor movement.
Responding to a petition filed on behalf of the football players, the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on March 26 that the players are free to unionize.
If upheld by the full labor relations board in Washington, D.C., the decision could have much wider ramifications, opening the door to unionization for other college athletes at campuses across the country.
At issue was the athletes’ status as university employees. For 50 years, college athletes have been regarded as nonemployees under federal labor law. But Peter Sung Ohr, the board’s regional director, ruled in his decision that because they work between 20 and 50 hours per week and their scholarships are linked directly to their performance on the field, the football players are in fact employed by their universities.
With their newfound rights, the players are seeking bigger scholarships, better medical coverage for sports-related injuries, measures to reduce the risk of traumatic brain injuries, an education trust fund to improve graduation rates and due-process rights.
Because the NLRB has jurisdiction only over only the private sector, Ohr’s decision will affect only players at private universities.
Northwestern and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which argue that college athletes are primarily students and not employees, have said that they will appeal the decision.
Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 29, Feb. 19, March 26
Mother Jones, Jan. 28, Feb. 21, March 26