NLRB Rules on Northwestern Players Union – More Changes Ahead?

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On Wednesday, 3/26/14, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of Chicago made a ruling on Northwestern University football players’ bid to unionize – determining that they are employees of the university with the right to unionize. Northwestern University already declared they will appeal the ruling on the Northwestern players union and that its student-athletes are students, not employees. The appeals process could take years to settle. The implications of this ruling suggest there are more changes ahead in college athletic programs.

This is the most recent incident challenging the NCAA amateur system. While this is an issue that has been debated for some time, the issue got national attention last September when Time Magazine published the article “It’s Time to Start Paying College Athlete’s” and made it the cover story. Higher Ed Hero published its reaction to the article the following month. However, what makes this ruling from the NLRB significant is that it is an action being taken in that direction rather than just debating. This ruling and the events leading up to it demonstrate a dissatisfaction with the current NCAA system.

Northwestern’s football players initially filed the petition with NLRB on January 28, 2014. More info on the ruling can be found here. While the exact details of the ruling haven’t been released as of yet, the statement from NLRB indicates the students presented compelling evidence for their case. Some of the arguments were centered on student-athletes being compensated in scholarships, which they define as income, working 20-50 hours per week and bringing in millions of dollars in revenue for the institution. The players of Northwestern stated that their primary reason for wanting to unionize is greater protection for football players. They are looking for guaranteed 4-year scholarships if a player is injured, greater concussion testing, and overall improved medical coverage. They are also interested in the possibility of getting paid. Some believe this could also lead to a share of television and licensing revenue.

According to CNN, the NCAA was not involved in the case or its decision, but was very disappointed in the ruling, maintaining NCAA members are students and not employees. The NLRB regional office in Chicago stated requests for review would need to be filed in their Washington, D.C. headquarters by April 9. The review process could take years to resolve. The NCAA recognizes it needs to do more to ensure player safety and scholarship access, but warns that the move to treat student-athletes as paid employees could have negative consequences. They feel introducing monetary compensation and other considerations to what is traditionally an amateur athletic association would have a negative impact on the 99% of student-athletes that will never play professionally. For those students, their sport is a way to give back to their college while receiving a free college education.

Changes to student-athlete compensation can also have negative consequences for the structure of college sports. Northwestern’s president emeritus, Henry Bienen, said in an interview with CNN, if the players successfully formed a union, he could see them splitting off from Division 1 football. Higher Ed Hero had a similar prediction regarding the structure of college sports when pay is introduced last fall. In all likelihood, the schools that pay college athletes would break off from those with amateurs and from a semi-pro league. Those programs would most likely break off further from their respective colleges.

While there is still much to be determined on the future of college athletes, it’s obvious changes are coming, one way or the other. The Northwestern players union is one example of this. How higher education prepares for those changes remains to be seen. Greater concussion testing and medical coverage make sense, but paying students directly can cause a variety of problems.

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