Northwestern University officials are protesting a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that would allow college athletes to form unions. The decision stems from a March 26 petition created by a group of the university’s football players seeking the right to hold a union election. The players maintained that members of the football team are employees of the school and entitled to the same labor rights listed under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). However, the players now argue that the NLRB did not accurately characterize their sentiments and the belief that they are primarily students and not employees.
The initial ruling was handed down two weeks ago when NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr found that members of the Northwestern football team should be classified as employees of the school who are compensated for their labor with scholarships and be allowed to unionize. But several of the same football players who organized the movement have backed off, saying they are no longer in support of unions. Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian said the players should have considered other options before deciding on unionizing. He said the movement was born out of good intentions, but the idea should have probably gone to the team’s coach Pat Fitzgerald or the school’s athletic director Jim Philips first.
Specifically, Northwestern officials said Ohr ignored the possible consequences of characterizing the football players as employees with regard to labor laws. They said allowing student-athletes to unionize could result in a variety of issues because of differing federal and state labor laws. Such a broad ruling, according to officials, could affect scholarship funding at universities and colleges across the country. Citing the possible taxing of scholarships, school officials said that financial responsibility could render a Northwestern education impossible to afford for many.
The ruling also failed to properly consider how much time a student-athlete allocates to their sport and how much time they give to academics. The school argued that it is almost impossible to say how much time the average student-athlete devotes to each pursuit because some individuals blur the line between the two by participating in voluntary workouts or similarly chosen activities.
The unionization movement is the brainchild of former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma. Colter and Huma founded the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which represents elite student athletes. Colter said he set out to speak for the college athlete at a time when many can barely afford to get by, despite earning millions, in some cases, for their schools.
“We ensure that players have a voice,” he told the Associated Press. “We’re a big part of what college sports is today and the revenue that is generated off of it. We deserve to have a say in that. We deserve a seat at the table.”
Huma, the president of the CAPA, said that his organization also hopes to convince schools to provide better protection for its athletes, particularly sports-related medical insurance, and to include money for basic living expenses in scholarship compensation.
According to figures from the U.S. Department of Education, the NCAA earned $872 million in 2012. The Northwestern football program reported earnings of $235 million from 2003 to 2012.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat