NLRB Ruling Allows College Football Players to Unionize — and the Ramifications Could Be Huge

A recent decision by regional director Peter Sung Ohr of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declared that Northwestern University football players are school employees, and have the right to unionize. This move could have vast potential ramifications for academic athletics and the NCAA, two groups that have traditionally worked together to set rules for players classified as “student-athletes.”

The cause was spearheaded by former Northwester quarterback Kain Colter and the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), a union which advocates for student athletes’ rights. During the NLRB hearings in February, Colter argued that his athletic responsibilities amounted to the workload of a full-time job — work which should afford him and his peers the opportunity to unionize. The NLRB agreed; Ohr reasoned that the relationship between the students and the university was primarily an economic one; the school controls and directs the activities of students in exchange for payment in the form of scholarships. 

Northwestern issued a statement expressing its disappointment, noting:

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. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student athletes. [We] plan … to appeal today’s decision to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C.

Sharing the school’s displeasure was the NCAA (a non-party to the NLRB hearing), which also strongly disagreed “with the notion that student-athletes are employees.” The NCAA stated, “We want student athletes — 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues — focused on what matters most — finding success in the classroom, on the field, and in life.”

If the decision is upheld on appeal there could be huge potential ramifications for all parties involved. For example, student-athletes — now “employees” — injured during sporting events may be entitled to workers’ compensation coverage and/or health benefits. Further, as “employees,” students could potentially seek salary-type payments and endorsements, payments which run afoul of NCAA amateurism regulations and put serious money at stake.

For now the application of the NLRB’s ruling is limited to private schools – public school students will need to seek employee status through their respective state labor boards. Still, given the enormous potential upside for public university students, it is likely only a matter of time before similar suits are filed across the country.

For additional information, visit – Recent NLRB Decision Finding Scholarship Football Players to be “Employees” Raises a Host of Legal and Practical Issues for College Football Programs by Richard A. Braden

Leave a Reply

Next ArticleThe Battle Over 'Margaret' Ends