Labor board: Northwestern University football players can unionize

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(CNN) – The National Labor Relations Board in Chicago has ruled that football players at Northwestern University are employees and can unionize, the board said Wednesday.

In a statement, Northwestern acknowledged the ruling and says it plans to appeal.

Read the board’s ruling (PDF)

The players’ petition was a way to get a seat at the bargaining table in college sports and could change the landscape of the NCAA model.

Northwestern University fought the petition by saying its players are students, not employees.

But the board’s decision indicates that there was enough evidence presented that the athletes are employees of the university — getting paid in the form of scholarships, working between 20 and 50 hours per week and generating millions of dollars for their institutions.

The athletes have said they’re seeking better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships and the possibility of being paid.

Richard Epstein, labor law professor at New York University, said the ruling has “vast implications for the structure of the sport, if upheld.”

But he noted an appeal would likely take years to resolve.

The regional NLRB office said any requests for review of its decision must be filed with the board’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. by April 9.

The NCAA promptly said that while it wasn’t party to the proceeding, it was “disappointed” with the board’s ruling and disagreed “with the notion that student-athletes are employees.”

“We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid,” said the statement from NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy. “While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.

“We want student-athletes — 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues — focused on what matters most — finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

Last week, Northwestern University’s president emeritus said that if the football players were successful forming a union, he could see the prestigious private institution giving up Division I football.

“If we got into collective bargaining situations, I would not take for granted that the Northwesterns of the world would continue to play Division I sports,” Henry Bienen said at the annual conference for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

He further said that if the players won their fight, private institutions with high academic standards — he specifically cited Duke and Stanford — could abandon the current model in order to preserve academic integrity.

He compared it to the pullback of the Ivy League schools decades ago, when the Ivy League conference decided to opt out of postseason play and to end athletic scholarships, preserving the emphasis on academics for the players.

“In the 1950s, the ‘Ivies’ had some of the highest-ranked football teams in the country. The Princeton teams were ranked in the top 5 or 10 at that time. They continue periodically to have ranked basketball teams, but they’ve given up a certain kind of model of sports,” he said, adding that “under certain conditions” the same could happen at other private elite universities that “continue to play big time sports.”

Jerry Price, senior associate athletic director at Princeton, said that change for the Ivy League allowed those schools to maintain academic integrity in the sports where, at other schools, academics can often be compromised in the name of the game.

“It was sort of a breaking point moment,” Price said, saying the Ivy League schools made the decision not to move forward like the bigger conferences — to “draw the line with the commercialization of what football was becoming.”

“And the results have been that Ivy football is not what it was in the first half of the 20th century,” Price said. “Certainly not like Big Ten football, SEC football. Its crowds are generally less than 10,000 people. They play only 10 games a year. … Certainly not what is going on at BCS level.”

Bienen, who was president of Northwestern from 1995 to 2009, made his comments during a panel discussion that included a presentation from Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association (NCPA) and the man who helped organize former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter to lead a unionization attempt.

Huma talked, as he has for months, about the issues his organization sees as great flaws in the current NCAA model. The NCPA believes that athletes in the revenue-generating sports of college football and men’s basketball are taken advantage of by universities, conferences and the NCAA, making billions from games, while the players sometimes struggle with basic needs like medical care, concussion testing and guaranteed scholarships.

In March, the NCPA took its fight before the NLRB in Chicago and presented a case during a five-day hearing. Both sides recently submitted court briefs.

Northwestern’s appeal could go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, and it could take years before there is a definitive decision.

During his daylong testimony last week, Colter talked about year-round time requirements, at times 50 hours a week devoted to football.

Colter said he had to give up his major related to pre-med studies because he couldn’t fit the classes into his schedule. The university countered that by bringing in students who were able to stay in rigorous classes, but Colter’s sentiment was echoed by the NCAA itself in a 2012 survey that asked athletes what they would change about their college experience.

About 15% of men’s football, baseball and basketball players said they would have had different majors had they not been athletes. Twelve percent of Division I football players said athletics prevented them from majoring in what they wanted. The average time spent on athletics in-season hovered around 40 hours per week for all three sports, according to the survey.

That flies in the face of the NCAA 20-hour rule, which states that, no matter the sport, coaches can’t take up more than 20 hours of their players’ time.


  • jamison jones

    This totally wrong for college sports. All arguments make sense but in the larger grand scheme of things, this is way too wrong for the student body at large and the college experience.

  • Wake Up

    Great news!! What is that sound? That sound you hear is the loud footsteps of change coming!!! Hear them? U of Alabama and Auburn, get ready — change is coming!!!!

    Those universities that unionize will draw the best players away from right-to-work state universities. Those universities will be the power houses of the future!! Yup, change is coming to football in Alabama!!!

    Also, there will be a spill over effect. As people that love football start seeing how unions benefit their beloved football “stars,” they will more likely start seeing unions as good for them in their workplaces! As I said, great news!!!

    • Saul Alinsky

      Thats right WAKEUP , we need to unionize everything, so our democratic socialist party can take control of the American people, our leader President Obama ,needs our help, WAKEUP to achive this goal. as always thanks ,for you help in our socialist movement .

  • jamison jones

    Ok NorthWestern, which sports are you going to unionize? Football of course. what about the other non-revenue generating sports like tennis, lacross, wrestlin among others. what happens to them? You are setting a very bad precedent here. Students go to college to predominantly get an education, so are the student athletes. College is not a ‘work place!’. The reveneues generated by big programa like football help out other sports. So in the grand scheme of things, North Western, don’t ‘kill’ the collegiate experience for others. The disgruntled student athletes, well, get past it! if you can’t make it to the big time sports, you should have kept up with your education. the percentage of college athletes that make it to the pros, statistically, is 1% or less. so you college athlete loafers, sorry. To every body else, BAD IDEA

    • Wake Up

      The court shot down every one of your points. America believes in the rule of law, not the opinions of laypeople.

      All of the sports at a unionized university will enjoy the benefits of union membership (ie, better scholarships that cover all expenses, guaranteed scholarships even if injured and disqualified from playing, long term health care for injuries to extend after they graduate, etc).

      This is only a bad idea for those players at universities in right-to-work states like Alabama.

      Change is coming!!

      • Wake Up

        That is correct, and the rest of the country is also coming around to those ideas! Change is coming — even to the South!!

      • screw aarp

        Well , wake up, now we all know, thanks for confirming , what we all knew. your a old far left socialist,from the Jimmy Carter years,and a community organizer, an a follower of Saul Alinskys teachings. we knew it all the time. red alert! red alert! red alert!

  • jamison jones

    This descision has to br struck down at some appellate level. The judge in this case is probably a politician. College sports is about enhancing the collegiate experience for the entire student body. When they are handing out scholarships to these athletes, the deal is fundamentally designed in such a way that you play a sport for the college to attend classes for ‘free’ and in the end, graduate! Thats the basic principle. All other arguments for $$$ are nothing but by a bunch of student athletes who haven’t made the cut at the pro level and therefore feel maligned. DON’T KILL THE EXPERIENCE FOR THE REST OF THE STUDENT BODY. its a fun filled 4 years you can never get anywhere else. Period. i enjoyed mine.

  • Nuclear Mike

    OK SEC…your free ride for the Commissioners to be paid $millions$ is about to change as the football players are basically ‘pro’ players for the universities…either pay our ‘gladiators’ or shutdown the programs as the source of so much money for the Univeristy/Athletic staffs to bonus themselves and the SEC Commison to pocket the wealth made from their ‘pro’ teams!!!

  • jamison jones

    Nuclear mike, these students are nothing but kids whose sole mission in college is to get an education. Period. They might come with a different agenda of their own but fundamentallly, its that degree or diploma for every student regardless of the front label! Please don’t pay these student-athletes cuz someone from the student body is going to allege a lawsuit saying something to the effect of; ‘i should be paid to be in college!’.

    • Nuclear Mike

      These “students” were only recruited to play “pro” college sports for the Universities and not to achieve academic goals of an formal education….

  • Wake Up

    It is a lot of fun watching the dinosaurs in this discussion thrash around as they stumble towards extinction — change is coming!!

      • screw aarp

        McCarthy, get most of the REDS out of Hollywood, and made America better. thank God the Carters, and Obamas and other Solcalist of the world do no come around that often, but when they do the RED COCKROACHS come out of the wood work.

      • Wake Up

        Joe McCarthy was an embarrassment to America. If you feel he was a great man, you really are showing who you are (but, i already knew how hateful and racists you are).

      • screw aarp

        wakeup no one said he was a GREAT man ,but he sure made the RED COCK ROACHS run for the hills. I see as your are call out on your statements,that you can not prove ,you call people names, and then you slither back into the wood work.

      • Wake Up

        I am slithering right into the future. It is people like me that are the future, dinosaurs like you are heading for extinction! Bye bye!

  • jamison jones

    Northwestern should kiss their football program, or the athletics department goodbye or just join division 4! This stuff is alot more complicated than they think! How are you going to deal with all the other sports if they all unionize? How much are you gon’ pay ever athlete? how are they going to be eveluated against union stipulations? what about if the school want s to fire a coach for not producing results? ITS BAD ALL AROUND AND I PRAY THIS THING FAILS AT ITS ROOTS. The college experience can never be replicated anywhere in life! and stuff like this just sucks life of it.

  • jamison jones

    The collegiate experience can never be replicated at any level in life. Unions in college, unless you are a college employee by definition, just make it bad for the student body! I hope it fails.

  • jamison jones

    if thats the case, and if the football players are recruited as players at the expense of their acdemics why not go straight to the nfl combine or the minor leagues the moment they feel that they can play pro? The college experience is not just about sports! this ruling is likely to to cause alot of discomfort to so many students….

  • jamison jones

    I hear all the discussions on talk radio and the missing part with these pundits is that they never went to college or they dropped out. All the economics of unionizing is right on but this can’t apply to colleges! athletes make up 15% or less of the entire student body. Are they consdiering the thoughts of the 85%? i don’t think any well meaning faculty would agree with this nonsense. DONOT KILL THE INNOCENCE OF THE COLLEGIATE EXPERIENCE. let them that feel that are ready for the pros, GO! this is way bigger than any $$$ you can think of.

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