A group of student football players asked the National Labor Relations Board to rule that Northwestern University football players are actually “employees” of the University, therefore allowing them to unionize. In February, the Board’s Regional Director heard five days of testimony, and decided that the players were considered employees.
The football players seeking to unionize argued that they are more like employees than students of the University. They claimed that they are controlled by their coaches and have the demands of a full-time job. They said they are expected to put in 60 hours per week during football season, and 20 hours per week during the off season, and their academics are just secondary to their real purpose of making money for the University. They further claimed that they are forced to put football first or else risk losing their scholarship money. As such, they argued that they should be considered employees, and allowed to unionize and fight for benefits such as long-term medical coverage for current and former athletes.
The University countered that participation in sports is entirely voluntary. It argued that it is a premiere academic institution, and that academics are the first priority before athletics. Recently a former president of the University said if the union is successful, he can see the University doing away with their football program.
Not surprisingly, the NLRB Regional Director ruled that the players are employees of the University and ordered a vote on whether or not to form a union. The vote has taken place, but the University asked for a full Board review of the Director’s decision and the ballots are being held until the Board issues a decision.
As we wait for the Board decision, I can’t help but wonder: Is this an 11th hour effort by unions to stay relevant in a time when they are becoming obsolete, or is this a necessary step to protect students? Also, with all of the news about long-term effects of playing football, including head trauma and brain injuries, is this another nail in America’s beloved sport’s coffin? No matter what the outcome of the full Board decision, it is likely that the losing side will appeal to the federal courts.