College Football Players Win Right to Unionize

By Gregory N. Heires

Cain Kolter

Kain Colter

Last week’s regional National Labor Relations Board ruling that college football plays are workers opens up the possibility for a wave of organizing in collegiate sports.

The ruling that players at Northwestern University with athletic scholarships have the right to vote on whether they want a union challenges the “student-athlete” principle whereby players receive scholarships in exchange for competing in sports on behalf of their schools.

“The NCAA invented the term student-athlete to prevent the exact ruling that was made today,” said Ramogia Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, after NLRB Region 13 Director Peter Sung Ohr issued his ruling on March 26. CAPA filed the case along with Kain Colter, a former quarterback of the Northwestern Wildcats football team.

“The reality is players are employees, and today’s ruling confirms that,” Ramogi said. “The players are one giant step closer to justice.”

The unionization vote of the 87 players with scholarships will likely be sealed while the case is appealed to the national board. Under the ruling, the players without scholarships are ineligible to be union members.

The ruling only applies to private universities. Collective bargaining at public universities is governed by state law.

“This ruling is a tremendous victory, not just for the athletes at Northwestern, but ultimately for all college athletes, many of whom generate tens of millions of dollars each year for their institutions, yet still are in constant danger of being out on the street with one accident or injury,” said Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, which backed Colter in his case.

The possibility that the decision could open up organizing drives by college athletes throughout the country sparked criticism from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former president of the University of Tennessee.

“Imagine a university’s basketball players striking before a Sweet Sixteen game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food and no classes before 11 a.m.,” Alexander said in a statement. “This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”

In his ruling, Ohr said that the Northwestern players “all squarely fall within the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of ‘employee’ when one considers the common law definition of ‘employee.’” As employees, the players have the right to union representation, according to the ruling.

Ohr concluded that the players are employees because through their scholarships they are compensated for doing a week’s worth of work. The National Collegiate Athletic Association limits athletes to 20 hours of practice and games each week. But the players in reality put in as many as 40 to 50 hours a week throughout the season once additional football-related such as training and travel are added to their practices and games, according to the regional NLRB decision.

The NCAA criticized the decision.

NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement, “While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees. We strongly disagree with the opinion that student-athletes are employees.”

The NCAA’s response certainly isn’t surprising since the decades-old student-athlete principle has allowed the NCAA and universities to profit handsomely from the labor of their athletes.

The NCAA faces a class-action federal lawsuit from former players who seek to be compensated for the billions of dollars in earnings from television broadcasts, video games and merchandise sales of college sports. The NCAA faces additional lawsuits charging that it failed to protect players from head injuries.

In his decision, Ohr noted that scholarship players at Northwestern are required to sign releases that allow the university and the Big Ten Conference to use their name, likeness and image for any purpose. The terms and conditions of the players’ conduct is governed by a contract-like “tender” that allows the university to cancel their scholarship if they engage in misconduct, commit a criminal act, abuse team rules or agree to be represented by an agent.

“The key issue at Northwestern is negotiating better protections against concussions and improving medical coverage following graduation,” USW President Gerard said.

“Our belief all along was simply that these athletes have a right to expect the same fair treatment that all Americans should expect, and that when they work hard and devote years of their lives in service to an institution, they deserve certain basic protections in return. None of them should live in fear of losing their scholarships in an instant, nor should they be left without health care after debilitating injuries.”

Gregory N. Heires is senior associate editor at Public Employee Press, the official publication of District Council 37, which represents 120,000 municipal workers and 50,000 retirees in New York City.  He blogs at The New Crossroads.

Read other Talking Union posts by Gregory Heires.

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