In a landmark decision on Wednesday, a regional National Labor Relations Board upheld the right for Northwestern football players to unionize. The ruling was based on an argument that players have an economic relationship with the school. Athletes’ day-to-day lives are governed by the university, and individuals are compensated in the form of scholarships. For its part, Northwestern had argued that scholarships are grants, not payment.
Regional director Peter Sung Ohr had the following to say in regards to his decision, per the Chicago Tribune:
“The record makes clear that the Employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school,” Ohr wrote.
“Even the players’ academic lives are controlled as evidenced by the fact that they are required to attend study hall if they fail to maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) in their classes.”
Beyond study hall, the Tribune also notes that players are required by team rules to live on campus during their Freshman and Sophomore years. After that, all requests for off-campus living must be approved by head football Pat Fitzgerald. Such mandates are not universal for the student population, thus giving more credence to the employer-employee argument.
Northwestern officials disagree with the ruling, vehemently upholding the notion of athletes as students following different educational pursuits – though no different from the general student body population.
“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” the university said. “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”
While some players contend that football is like a job – outgoing quarterback Kain Colter says he changed majors due to demands from the sport – Northwestern has pointed to its 97% graduation rate as a counterargument. One layer representing the university stated, “Northwestern is not a football factory.”
Currently the unionization movement only extends to private schools, as the federal labor agency has no jurisdiction over public institutions. While this is a potentially monumental change for college athletics, it is only the beginning of litigious battles that could very well travel through the appellate court system all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Northwestern’s players, the first college athletes to ever seek unionization, have organized by way of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). In support of CAPA, the United Steelworkers union has paid for the group’s legal bills.