In a ruling that could revolutionize college sports, a federal agency has given football players at Northwestern University the green light to unionize. The landmark ruling by a regional director of National Labor Relations Board means the players are deemed employees under federal law and so can create the nation's first college athletes' union. Union lawyers argued the Big Ten school's football players are part of a commercial enterprise that generates hefty profits through their labor. The NCAA, Big Ten Conference and the private school vehemently opposed the union drive. A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Sung Ohr, found that the players "fall squarely within" the definition of "employee" under federal labor law. An employee is generally regarded by law as someone who gets compensation for a service and is under the direct control of managers. Players argued that their scholarships are compensation, and that their coaches are their managers. The College Athletes Players Association, which would take the lead in organizing the players, wants guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players. It also wants better procedures to reduce head injuries. Other goals include potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships. Critics say letting players unionize could raise the prospects of strikes by disgruntled players, or lockouts by athletic departments. For now, the push is on to unionize athletes at private schools such as Northwestern. The federal agency doesn't have jurisdiction over public universities. Northwestern argued college athletes are students and can't be put in the same category as factory workers. Northwestern University, based in Evanston, Illinois, says it will appeal to labor authorities in Washington. The school has argued that college athletes, as students, don't fit into the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized workers.
Support Your Public Radio Station