CHICAGO (AP) — In a stunning ruling that could revolutionize college
sports, a federal agency said Wednesday that football players at
Northwestern University can create the nation's first union of college
The decision by a
regional director of the National Labor Relations Board answered the
question at the heart of the debate over the unionization bid: Do football
players who receive full scholarships to the Big Ten school qualify as
employees under federal law and therefore can legally unionize?
Peter Sung Ohr,
the NLRB regional director, said in a 24-page decision that the players
"fall squarely" within the broad definition of employee.
activists cheered as they learned of the ruling.
preparing so long for a big game and then when you win — it is pure joy,"
said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the designated president of
Northwestern's would-be football players' union.
An employee is
regarded by law as someone who, among other things, receives compensation
for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers. In the
case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers and
scholarships are a form of compensation, Ohr concluded.
Ill., university argued that college athletes, as students, do not fit in
the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized
workers. The school announced plans to appeal to labor authorities in
Supporters of the
union bid argued that the university ultimately treats football as more
important than academics for scholarship players. Ohr sided with the
players on that issue.
"The record makes
clear that the employer's scholarship players are identified and recruited
in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of
their academic achievement in high school," Ohr wrote. He also noted that
among the evidence presented by Northwestern, "no examples were provided
of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or
games to attend their studies."
The ruling also
described how the life of a football player at Northwestern is far more
regimented than that of a typical student, down to requirements about what
they can and can't eat and whether they can live off campus or purchase a
car. At times, players put 50 or 60 hours a week into football, he added.
Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said in a
statement that while the school respects "the NLRB process and the
regional director's opinion, we disagree with it."
The next step
would be for scholarship players to vote on whether to formally authorize
the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, to represent them,
according to the NLRB decision.
goals of CAPA include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical
expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries and
potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.
But critics have
argued that giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to
unionize could hurt college sports in numerous ways, including raising the
prospect of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic
For now, the push
is to unionize athletes at private schools, such as Northwestern, because
the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public
quarterback Kain Colter took a leading role in establishing CAPA. The
United Steelworkers union has been footing the legal bills.
Colter, who has
entered the NFL draft, said nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on
the Wildcats roster backed the union bid, though only he expressed his
He said the No. 1
reason to unionize was to ensure injured players have their medical needs
sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to
be taken care of," Colter told ESPN.
The NCAA has been
under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a
class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the
billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and
video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from
debilitating head injuries.
Mark Emmert has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes
defray some expenses. Critics say that is not nearly enough, considering
players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and
In a written
statement, the NCAA said it disagreed with the notion that
student-athletes are employees.
hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to
enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport,
not to be paid," the NCAA said.
are coming to a head at a time when major college programs are awash in
cash generated by new television deals that include separate networks for
the big conferences. The NCAA tournament generates an average of $771
million a year in television rights itself, much of which is distributed
back to member schools by the NCAA.
CAPA argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a
commercial enterprise that relies on players' labor to generate billions
of dollars in profits. The NLRB ruling noted that from 2003 to 2013 the
Northwestern program generated $235 million in revenue — profits the
university says went to subsidize other sports.
During the NLRB's
five days of hearings in February, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald took the
stand for union opponents, and his testimony sometimes was at odds with
Colter told the
hearing that players' performance on the field was more important to
Northwestern than their in-class performance, saying, "You fulfill the
football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics." Asked why
Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: "To
play football. To perform an athletic service."
said he tells players academics come first, saying, "We want them to be
the best they can be ... to be a champion in life."