Staffing Management

Chicago NLRB OKs Northwestern University Football Players’ Petition to Unionize

By Max Mihelich

Mar. 27, 2014

The Chicago branch of National Labor Relations Board granted approval to the Northwestern University football players’ petition to organize a labor union.

The board determined March 26 that the football players receiving grant-in-aid scholarships constituted a legal bargaining unit under the College Athletes Players Association. Players who walked on to Northwestern’s football team were not included in the bargaining unit.

Northwestern’s “football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are found to be ‘employees’ within the meaning of the [National Labor Relations Act]; and the petitioned-for-unit was found to be an appropriate unit within the meaning of the Act,” according to the ruling.

The NLRB applied the common law “right of control test” to the players’ situation. The board found the university, which is in Chicago and is a member of the Big 10 Conference, asserts a certain level of control over those players. In finding that, the university was not justified in denying the players employee status. 

Joe Bryan, an attorney with Taylor English Duma in Atlanta, said the NLRB’s reasoning that made players receiving grant-in-aid scholarships employees of the university will be the most hotly contested aspect of Northwestern’s next move. University attorneys, who have vowed to appeal the ruling, have 14 days to file.

“This is not over,” Bryan said. “I think many more interest groups are going to get involved during the appeal. The NCAA will likely file an amicus brief. Who knows how many other college associations are going to get involved too? Other sports associations will also probably want to have a say in this.”

If the decision eventually holds up after what is expected to be a very long appeal process, the players’ union will be able to bargain with the university over wages, hours and conditions of employment. The players could bargain for extended health coverage or even, to some extent, the requirements placed on them concerning endorsements just like professional football players in the National Football League, explained Bryan.

“I agree with the reports we’ve been seeing about this decision fundamentally changing big-time college sports,” he said.

Max Mihelich is a writer in the Chicago area.

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