The Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the University and have the right to unionize. The players petitioned the NLRB with the hope of changing the landscape of the NCAA model on March 26. While the school plans to appeal the decision, the board believed there was enough evidence proving that the athletes are employees of the University. These athletes are paid in the form of scholarships, work between 20 and 50 hours per week and generate millions of dollars for their schools, supporting their claim that they are indeed employees of their universities.
This decision will greatly impact the future of college sports, as it will likely open numerous doors for college athletes. The Northwestern athletes claim they are seeking better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships and of course the possibility of being paid.
Not only is Northwestern upset with the decision, but so is the NCAA.
“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. 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,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said.
Division I conferences such as the Big Ten and the SEC are against the ruling as well.
“While we respect the process followed by the National Labor Relations Board, we disagree with the ruling. We don’t believe that student-athletes are university employees. The issues raised during the hearings are already being discussed at the national level, and we believe that students should be a part of the conversation,” the Big Ten stated.
SEC commissioner Michael Slive wrote in a statement, “Notwithstanding today’s decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend.”
Northwestern’s president emeritus Henry Bienen believes that if the ruling stands, many universities could potentially drop down from Division I play. Bienen argues that the most important job of a student athlete is their role in the classroom. If this decision stands, Bienen said that private institutions with high academic standards – specifically mentioning Duke and Stanford – could abandon the current model in hopes of preserving academic integrity. Decades ago, Ivy League schools opted out of postseason games and ended athletic scholarships, emphasizing the importance of academics for the players. Princeton’s athletic director Jerry Price said that the Ivy League’s decision to not move forward like the bigger conferences drew the line “with the commercialization of what football was becoming.”
Ramogi Huma, the President of the National College Players Association
(NCPA), helped former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter lead the unionization attempt. Huma saw many flaws in the NCAA model, but the main argument of the NCPA was the billions of dollars the student athletes generate for their universities while struggling with basic needs such as medical care, concussion testing and guaranteed scholarships.
“We’ve begged, pleaded, pressured, changed laws. There is no other way to bring forward comprehensive reform, and just like other billion-dollar industries, the answer is a union,” Human said.
This ruling ultimately sets a precedent in the world of collegiate sports.
“This ruling is going to apply to all private schools in (Division 1). That’s a significant number of schools, a significant domino to fall where hundreds of thousands of players will have rights under labor law and that’s the first step in creating an environment where players are protected,” Huma said.
This ruling only applies to students in private institutions. Players at public universities would have to appeal to their state’s labor board. Northwestern has made it very clear that it plans to appeal the decision, but an appeal can take years to play out.
While athletes are first and foremost hoping for changes to medical care and scholarships, there have been talks about the new union incorporating salaries and commercial sponsorship. This would completely change college athletics as we know it, as it will start looking even more like professional sports. The unionization of Northwestern’s team is the first step, but only time will tell if they succeed and if other schools follow suit.