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NLRB Rules College Athletes Are Employees And Can Unionize

While the rest of us have been cheering on our favorite teams or sulking due to our busted March Madness brackets, Northwestern University has been fighting a different battle before the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”).  On March 26, 2014, a regional director for the NLRB ruled that football players at Northwestern qualify as “employees” and have the right to unionize, paving the way for athletes at private educational institutions throughout the country to unionize.

The College Athletics Players Association (“CAPA”), lead by outgoing quarterback Kain Colter, brought the action against Northwestern.  The United Steelworkers are covering CAPA’s legal fees.  CAPA’s attorneys argued that college sports are commercial enterprises that generate billions of dollars in profits by relying on the labor of student athletes. 

The regional director agreed with the CAPA and ruled that the players are employees of the university.  The regional director reasoned that the players and the university have an economic relationship – the players play for the university, under the university’s rules, and the university compensates the players greatly in the form of scholarships.  The ruling does not extend to walk-ons or players receiving other financial aid because they are free to quit the team and keep their aid, while the other players only receive their scholarships if they play for the team. The ruling also applies only to athletes at private institutions as public universities do not fall under the Board’s jurisdiction.

This is not the final ruling on the matter.  Northwestern plans to appeal the ruling and this matter will likely generate much attention in the courts.  The affects the ruling could have on college sports and educational institutions is endless. 

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