NLRB’s decision to grant Northwestern football players union rights could have long-term implications

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A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that scholarship players of the Northwestern University football team are employees of the University and have the ability to form unions, setting a precedent that could have implications across college athletics.

While the ruling, which comes as the NCAA is facing increased scrutiny over the compensation of athletes, will be appealed in front of the board in Washington, it represents a larger trend in the evolution of college athletics and its players.

Peter Ohr outlined his decision in a 24-page report that sided with the College Athletes Players Association, which has been led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. A petition filed in January by the CAPA and heard in front of the board for the past two months provided enough evidence for Ohr that the players are presented as employees of the university.

For years, the NCAA has functioned with players as student-athletes, offering scholarships for their tuition, room, food and books in exchange for athletic competition for their universities. But Ohr found, given the number of hours dedicated to their sport, their payment in the form of scholarships and the amount of revenue they generate for their school, the Northwestern football players should have the ability to form unions since they are “not primarily students.”

“If you think of the life of a college football player, they have very little choice of how they run their life,” said Thomas Hunt, an assistant professor in the College of Education focusing on sports law and history. “So since the power of the students to run their own lives is greatly moderated, I think that’s the primary reason why they decided to seek unionization.”

If the decision is upheld, it could potentially change how the NCAA compensates its athletes as schools bring in millions of dollars each year from their athletic programs. While the ruling only applies to Northwestern football players, it has the ability to extend to other universities across the country.

“I think we’re actually on the cusp of something major,” Hunt said. “I think the general move of things, in terms of other decisions and the financial implications for student-athletes, as well as this, show a pretty strong trend that the landscape of college football is moving.”

Any final decision reached by the NLRB will not affect any public schools, including UT. Instead, players at state schools would have to appeal to state labor boards if they wanted to follow in the path of Northwestern’s players.

It will likely be at least months before a decision will be seen from Northwestern’s appeal in front of the full NLRB. But the decision comes as another major case is taking form. This summer, a case by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon will be heard over athletes’ inability to monetize their image and representation.

“I don’t think many student-athletes need to do anything more,” said public relations lecturer Stephen Wille, who focuses on sports communication. “Right now, the wind is blowing in the direction of positive change for them.”