What a Ruling on Football Players Means for College Athletes

Mar 28, 2014

Credit Flickr Creative Commons/The U.S. Army

Earlier this week, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago ruled that Northwestern University football players are employees of the university. That could have implications for other student athletes in private universities nationwide, including local schools like the University of Hartford.

This all started because the football players at Northwestern wanted to form a union so they could have collective bargaining rights and better health coverage.

But to form a union, you need to be an employee, as Jared Lucan, a lawyer in Connecticut who specializes in employment and labor law, explained, after reviewing the NLRB decision. Being an employee requires three things, to put it simply, said Lucan. An employee has to be giving a service for hire, with a contract, and be controlled for a payment. 

In the ruling, the NLRB's regional director in Chicago said the football players bring in millions of dollars to Northwestern's football program, they get paid with a full scholarship, and they basically sign a contract saying what they can and cannot do to maintain that contract.

So yes, they're employees. 

That's the opposite of how the board has treated graduate students in the past. It referred to a case against Brown University in 2004, and that's what could point to the implications for other student athletes on scholarships. 

That case was about whether graduate students are employees, and Lucan explained the NLRB said no.

"The graduate student's primary responsibility is being a student,"Lucan said, paraphrasing the decision from the Brown case. "The football players...based on all the evidence there, that's not their primary responsibility, essentially, which kind of undercuts the whole idea of a student athlete, right?"

Lucan said this would not affect public universities like the University of Connecticut. But it's likely to lead to players from the five major college sports conferences getting more benefits, said Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chair of the committee on academic performance of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. 

But he does not agree with paying student athletes a salary because it would "blur the differences between professional and amateur athletics to an extent that would make it very difficult to make college sports look much different than professional sports," he said. 

"For me the appeal of college athletics has always been that college students are the ones who are playing the sports," Harrison said, explaining that college athletes "have a relationship with their institution and a feeling about it that's different from the one that professional athletes have, not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but different."

This isn't over yet.

Northwestern plans to appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. Both  Northwestern and the NCAA have said they are disappointed by the decision.