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Northwestern football moves toward unionization

Published: April 4, 2014
Section: News


The framework of college athletics may be dramatically altered after a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that football players at Northwestern University fit within the definition of employees. This judgment allows these football players to form a labor union.

Peter Ohr, regional director of the Chicago NLRB Office, reached the controversial verdict after considering the time commitment that the student athletes must make to football. It is an obligation that can amount to 60 hours per week during portions of the year.

The students are seeking compensation for use of their images and reputations. Yet they do not intend to ask for a salary or regular pay for their athletic commitments. The players also want better medical coverage for injuries sustained during competition and practice along with an increased focus on prevention measures in terms of head injuries.

In 1953, when collegiate football players were seeking workers compensation for injuries received during competition from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the organization developed the phrase “student-athlete.” This term emphasized the scholastic aspect of students’ college experience to avoid having to pay for long-term disability benefits. In recent years, journalists, athletes and the public have been skeptical of the NCAA’s “student-athlete” practices, as Division I football and basketball programs’ revenues have skyrocketed from ticket sales, regional and national television contracts and merchandising. Some are also critical of colleges maintaining non-profit statuses, despite bringing in millions of dollars from sports.

The NCAA has been involved in a number of lawsuits and controversies in recent years. The case of O’Bannon v. NCAA is an antitrust suit stipulating that the NCAA unfairly forbids athletes who have graduated to earn compensation for the continued use of their likeness. Other lawsuits purport that the NCAA has not sufficiently prevented players from receiving head injuries and has not helped them deal with the financial burdens of injuries afterwards.

Northwestern University is a Division I school of nearly 20,000 students located just north of Chicago in Evanston. The college’s athletic teams, known as the Wildcats, are members of the high-profile Big 10 Conference. The school is one of the most highly ranked scholastic institutions in the nation with rigorous academic standards. 97 percent of Northwestern football players graduate, more than any other Division I football program. Ohr’s findings report that the monetary value of a year’s scholarship for Northwestern football players is as high as $76,000.

In addition to the effect that the decision will have on Northwestern students, the case is expected to become a precedent in similar labor cases. The rationale will only apply as a precedent for private colleges. The NLRB does not have jurisdiction over public schools, where labor and collective bargaining restrictions are governed by the state.

Richard Epstein, labor law professor at New York University believes that the ruling has “vast implications for the structure of the sport, if upheld,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
The determination of athletes as employees applies only to students receiving full athletic scholarships. There are currently 125 Division I football programs that are each allowed to award 85 full scholarships. There are additionally 315 Division I basketball programs that can each give 13 full scholarships.

In Ohr’s report detailing the reasoning of the decision, evidence was given to demonstrate the control the university exerts over athletes, specific conditions that are not applied to other students. These include the requirements of scholarship students to live on campus for their first two years and that all athletes sign a release for the school and Big 10 conference to use their name, likeness and image for any purpose. It also includes not allowing students to have media interviews, swear or receive any compensation or advantage due to their athletic reputation and that all players must be drug tested. Athletes must also inform the coach regarding what car they drive, where they work and where they live off campus.

Numerous students report not being able to take certain required classes in their preferred major and not being able to major in the subject they wanted, due to the heavy time commitment of athletics. This last consequence has been shown to be prevalent across schools and sports. CNN reported that nearly 15 percent of Division I men’s baseball, basketball and football players would have majored in something different if they had not participated in sports.

Numerous individuals and groups believe that the students forming a union could hurt their cause and have negative repercussions for college sports. It is argued that one such flaw could be that athlete strikes and athletic department lockouts would be possible. Another caveat of such a future would be the possibility of altering the non-profit status of schools (or their athletic programs). As a non-profit, revenue from donations and ticket sales are tax exempt, as are athletic scholarships, but the potential income of players would not be. Henry Bienen, president of Northwestern from 1995 to 2009, believes that the formation of a union could lead to a downfall in college football.

“If we got into collective bargaining situations, I would not take for granted that the Northwesterns of the world would continue to play Division I sports,” said Bienen to Bloomberg News.

Bienen believes that Northwestern and other academically-oriented Division I private schools such as Stanford University and Duke University could decide to downgrade their football program to avoid the struggles that go with unionization and maintain their reputations for academic integrity. The Ivy League went through a similar process in 1981, when they were demoted from Division I football to Division I-AA. Although eligible, the Ivies do not participate in postseason play due to conflicts with the academic schedule. Despite continued academic success, the Ivy League schools’ football programs that were once the best in the country receive a smaller portion of the revenue, attendance and attention that they once drew. Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships in any sport.

Northwestern plans to file a request for a full review by the NLRB, whose members were appointed by President Obama and serve five year terms. The school has until April to appeal, and the athletes must respond by April 16. There is no deadline for the NLRB to reach a decision.

A statement by Northwestern’s Vice President for University Relations Alan K. Cubbage read, “Northwestern believes the decision overlooked or completely ignored much of the critical testimony supporting the University’s position that student-athletes are not employees of Northwestern.”

Northwestern’s athletes and cooperating organizations are meeting with legislators in the nation’s capital this week. The athletes have received financial and administrative backing from the United Steelworkers Union. To unionize, 30 percent of Northwestern scholarship football players must agree to the decision. As Northwestern University is likely to appeal any decision ruling in favor of the students, the case may potentially be heard by the Supreme Court, and it may take years to reach any conclusion.