Entertainment & Sports Law

In 'revolutionary' ruling, NLRB says football players are employees of Northwestern, can unionize

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Football players are employees of Northwestern University and can unionize, the National Labor Relations Board said in a ruling released Wednesday that is expected to reverberate throughout the country.

Robert McCormick, a professor emeritus at Michigan State University College of Law, describes the decision as “revolutionary for college sports.” If it is upheld on appeal, he told the Chicago Tribune, it could be persuasive in related legal matters. For example, if football players are employees for union purposes, they might also be determined to be employees entitled to payment for injuries under Illinois’ workers’ compensation act.

Law professor Richard Epstein of New York University tells CNN the ruling has “vast implications for the structure of the sport, if upheld.” However, the appellate process will likely last for years, he pointed out.

Because the NLRB governs private employers, the ruling will apply only to private colleges and universities, not public ones, Bloomberg News reports.

Led by outgoing Northwestern Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, the team’s players are the first in college sports to seek to unionize. They formed the College Athletes Players Association, whose legal fees have been paid by the United Steelworkers. In January, CAPA petitioned the NLRB seeking a right to vote on union representation, contending that National Collegiate Athletic Association rules are unfair. The players group wants compensation for sponsorships, medical expenses and an increase in athletic scholarship funding.

The university said in a written statement provided to the Tribune it is disappointed at the ruling by regional director Peter Sung Ohr of the NLRB and plans to appeal to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C.

“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students,” the statement explains. “Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”

The Associated Press, ESPN and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) also have stories.

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: “Former college sports stars say the NCAA owes them for using their images”

Associated Press: “Northwestern: Academics top priority”

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