The NLRB decision: what it means for Northwestern and the NCAA

    It’s an exciting week to be a Wildcat.

    After an extensive hearing process, which lasted over a month, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled Mar. 26 that scholarship Northwestern football players qualify as employees of the university and can unionize for the purpose of collective bargaining.


    NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr ordered in the statement that Northwestern’s scholarship football players would take a vote within 25 to 30 days of the decision about whether to form an official union. College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) stated that they would represent Northwestern’s football team if at least 30 percent of the players voted in favor of it. On ESPN’s SportsCenter Wednesday afternoon, Colter said he believes the vote will get the majority it needs to unionize.

    The decision was the first since in nearly 60 years to rule on the status of college athletes as employees. In 1953, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a ruling that a football player was not considered an employee of the University of Denver and therefore could not receive workman’s compensation. The decision also coined the term "student-athlete."

    For now, the ruling only applies to Northwestern. This specific ruling will apply to Division I football and basketball players at private universities, should other teams decide to follow Northwestern’s lead. As former quarterback Kain Colter stated at the second NLRB hearing, CAPA will look to help unionize other male and female sports in the future.

    Like most controversial decisions, this one is being appealed. Northwestern University is planning to bring the case to the NLRB in Washington, D.C., a process that could take months with the potential to go before the Supreme Court. The university's appeal is due to the board by Apr. 9. The board's response is due a week after, no later than Apr. 16.

    Vice President for University Relations Alan Cubbage said in a statement Mar. 28 that "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, and the regional director also applied incorrect legal standards."

    The statement continued: "Northwestern considers its students who participate in NCAA Division I sports, including those who receive athletic scholarships, to be students, first and foremost. We believe that participation in athletic events is part of the overall educational experience for those students, not a separate activity. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns these students are raising. The life of a student-athlete is extremely demanding, but the academic side and the athletic side are inextricably linked."


    Contrary to popular belief, however, none of this is about money.

    The goals of Colter and CAPA include medical coverage for injuries sustained while playing and academic support from the university.  Colter has not mentioned receiving a salary, as scholarship athletes are already “compensated,” and, in fact, has specifically said that players will not seek a salary.

    “Right now the NCAA doesn’t guarantee that any of our medical bills will be paid," Colter said on SportsCenter. “When we are wearing our school colors and sacrificing a lot we should expect that our medical bills should be taken care of.”

    Concussions are an issue that has taken the media by storm, especially after the suicides of former high-profile athletes, which were attributed, in part, to the head trauma they suffered during their careers. Colter, who has suffered a concussion during his playing career, is aware of the problems they cause, and would like to voice in how practices are operated, so they are safer for the players.

    Colter now famously testified saying that the university pressured him to change his major from pre-med to psychology, as science classes conflicted with morning practices. While Northwestern leads all other FBS schools with a 97 percent graduation rate, the national graduation rate for football players is around 50 percent.

    “That’s not setting up these players for success down the line,” Colter said.

    Even the NCAA in its denouncement of the NLRB’s decision admitted that 99 percent of athletes don’t progress to the professionals. Thus, the overwhelming majority of students need academic and medical support off the field and court.


    Even though salaries are not on the current list of demands, it's possible unions may eventually ask for some kind of payment. When former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was suspended for the first game of the 2013-2014 season for allegedly selling autographed items for personal profit, supporters began clamoring for players’ rights to receive monetary compensation for their work. Somewhere down the line, the concept of a paycheck may enter the conversation, but not yet.

    The unionization raises a few other important considerations that could complicate the process. It’s not clear if scholarships will become taxable income, as it is considered a form of payment. Under Title IX, men’s and women’s sports must receive the same amount of funding from universities; unionization could mean that less popular teams could be cut if schools can no longer provide equal scholarships and benefits for other athletes.

    Despite all of these nuances, Northwestern has become the site of a historic, potentially transformative event in college athletics.

    “Today has been a huge success for not only Northwestern football players, but for college players across the nation,” Colter said.


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