Has unionized college football arrived?

published in McAfee & Taft EmployerLINC | March 27, 2014

By Charles S. Plumb

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

— “The End” by Jim Morrison

Were the Doors thinking about the prospect of unionized college football when they wrote and performed “The End”? That’s how many of us felt when the NLRB ruled that Northwestern University football players could form a union. Now that the shock and awe has faded, what should we expect for the future?

The how and why of the decision

college-football-unionEighty-five football players receive scholarships to Northwestern that pay for tuition, fees, room, board and books. These scholarships can total anywhere from $61,000 to $76,000 for each athlete during an academic year. The Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board held that Northwestern football players who received scholarships were “employees” for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act and were entitled to unionize under this federal law. The Chicago office reached this conclusion based on the following:

  • The amount of time committed to football-related activity;
  • The focus on athletic versus academic performance and duties;
  • The revenue generated by football players for the university; and
  • The extent of control exercised by the university over the athlete

As far as the NLRB’s regional office was concerned, Northwestern’s scholarship football players were “under a contract for hire in return for compensation.”

What’s down the road?

Northwestern announced its intention to appeal the Chicago Regional Office’s ruling to the NLRB’s national office in Washington, D.C. In the meantime — unless yesterday’s decision is stayed — the College Athletes Players Association can proceed with its effort to unionize Northwestern football players.

Does the ruling mean the team is unionized? No. The Regional Office has directed that a secret ballot election will be held by the NLRB, where the players will vote to decide whether to be represented by the union.

Are the players covered by a union contract? No. If a majority of the players who vote in the election choose to be represented by the union, then Northwestern and the union must sit down and attempt to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement to govern the terms and conditions of the players’ “employment” with the university.

Northwestern is a private university. Does this ruling apply to state universities? No. Governmental employers — including public universities — are excluded from the definition of “employer” under the NLRA.

What does this do to the NCAA? Great question. The ice just got thinner under the NCAA’s already precarious existence.