Which Side Are You On: A Union for College Athletes?

In recent years, unions have made significant inroads in terms of representing workers at universities and colleges.  The University of California alone bargains with 15 unions representing 77,000 of its employees.  As a result, these employees enjoy better wages, benefits, and job protections than if they were not Gear-and-Gavel_dark-blueorganized.

Until now, none of these unions has represented student athletes.  But why not?  Student athletes generate enormous sums of money and publicity for their alma maters. They are constantly at risk of injury.  They are required to spend long hours training and practicing and the beck and call of their coaches.  And yet, they are at the mercy of their institutions, without any real voice.

That may be changing.  On March 26, 2014, the regional director of District 13 of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago, Peter Sung Ohr, ruled that Northwestern University football players were university employees.  As such, they are entitled to vote on whether to form a union.

Ohr’s ruling was based on the enormous revenue (and other benefits) that Northwestern derives from its football players.  Ohr noted that Northwestern received football revenue of $235 million from 2003 through 2012-approximately $25 million per year.  Ohr also noted the “immeasurable positive impact to Northwestern’s reputation a winning football team may have.”

Ohr also was impressed with the hour-by-hour, day-by-day control that the coaching staff has over players’ lives.  He spent more than 10 pages of his 24-page opinion describing practice schedules, workout requirements, coaches’ supervision (including approval of living arrangements and control over the use of social media), dress codes, restrictions on travel and study schedules.  Ohr concluded that this is the type of control that an employer has over an employee, not the kind of control a school has over a student.

The Northwestern decision is obviously controversial.  It is also limited to private colleges and universities.  (State college and university athletes will need to seek recourse under state law, and not the National Labor Relations Act.)

However, if upheld, it will dramatically alter the relationship between athletes and their universities.  The athletes (and their unions) will be able to bargain over schedules and rules.  The athletes will be entitled to workers compensation if they are injured-a very real concern.  The decision may also pave the way to discussions regarding profit sharing and salaries.  This seems only fair in light of the incredible amounts of revenue that certain college sports generate.

This issue is far from being resolved.  The NLRB has granted Northwestern’s request for a full-board review of Ohr’s decision.  (Players already cast ballots in the election, but they were impounded pending the decision of the full NLRB.)  Certain politicians are outraged, and promising retribution.  However, in the meantime it is good to see the athletes at Northwestern engage in collective activity in order to assert their right to be treated fairly.