Yesterday, the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency which regulates private sector employees and labor unions, ordered that a union election be held among the scholarship college football players at Northwestern University.  The 24-page decision chronicles the life of a Division I college football player.  Essentially, they are paid (in the form of scholarships worth over $60,000 per year) to play football.  As anyone who has played a college sport knows, the time requirements to maintain these scholarships are enormous.  During much of the year, players are expected to spend 40-50 hours per week on football-related activities.  The decision goes into great depth in analyzing the daily, weekly, and seasonal commitments required of players.

While scholarships at Northwestern are four-year arrangements, other NCAA schools are permitted to offer one-year scholarships renewable at the college’s discretion.  But the fundamental point is that the scholarship is a quid pro quo for abiding by the rules and continuing to play football:

But the fact remains that the Head Coach of the football team, in consultation with the athletic department, can immediately reduce or cancel the players’ scholarship for a variety of reasons. Indeed, the scholarship is clearly tied to the player’s performance of athletic services as evidenced by the fact that scholarships can be immediately canceled if the player voluntarily withdraws from the team or abuses team rules. Although only two players have had the misfortune of losing their scholarships during the past five years, the threat nevertheless hangs over the entire team and provides a powerful incentive for them to attend practices and games, as well as abide by all the rules they are subject to.

Decision at 15.

It is this fundamental fee for service relationship that caused the Board to define the scholarship players as “employees,” and therefore subject to the federal labor laws.

Technically, the decision applies only to athletes receiving scholarships to play football at Northwestern.  “Walk-ons,” those without scholarships, are ineligible to be part of the bargaining unit (the group the union represents), since they receive no scholarships and hence no compensation to justify being classified as employees.  By extension, it would seem to apply to any other Division I college football program, as well as other similar programs, such as college basketball.  For public universities, which comprise the bulk of Division I schools, unionization rights would depend on the law of the jurisdiction where that school is located.  If, for instance, U. Mass. basketball players operated under a regimen similar to Northwestern’s, I see no reason why they could not petition the Commonwealth Department of Labor Relations for union recognition.

What will happen with this ruling depends on the extent that Northwestern wants to contest it.  As the decision of the Board’s Chicago region, it can be appealed to the 5-member NLRB in Washington, which, currently staffed with Obama appointees, would seem much more receptive than previous Boards.  If affirmed in Washington, the university could only appeal by refusing to bargain with the union (the “College Athletes Players Association”), thereby generating a “technical refusal to bargain,” which would eventually reach a federal appeals court, a less union-friendly environment than the current NLRB.

While the decision obviously does little for the millions of unrepresented workers toiling without bands or cheerleaders in far less glamorous jobs, perhaps it sends a fundamental message that too many people have either forgotten or never known:  If you want to improve your job, get a union.

Alan Shapiro, Esq.

Sandulli Grace, P.C.

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