Sports are a huge part of the collegiate experience. College athletes sometimes reach celebrity status, especially Division 1 football and basketball players. Many of these athletes receive generous scholarships and perks on campus. However, their lives are not all glamorous as they are expected to devote a significant amount of time to practice and competition, all while juggling schoolwork and other obligations. Football players from Northwestern University recently spoke up and claimed that they should be able to unionize to protect their own interests and receive certain benefits.
The Northwestern athletes brought their case before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), asking for student athletes who receive scholarships to be recognized as employees of the university so that they would have an array of employee rights. The main question in the case was whether the athletes were “primarily students” or not.
College Students - or Athletes?
The NLRB’s regional director, Peter Sung Ohr, issued a decision in favor of the athletes earlier this year. The decision stated that many athletes spend up to 50 hours per week practicing with the team, competing, studying film, or participating in strength training and conditioning workouts. These duties are not are not associated with any academic program or curriculum, therefore the majority of the athletes’ work and time dedicated to the school is not academic in nature.
In a previous case, the NLRB ruled that graduate students from Brown University were not employees because their teaching hours were part of the curriculum required for their degree. The grad students therefore were primarily students even if they completed teaching duties. The college athletes, on the other hand, do not perform their football duties as part of any academic program. Therefore, the duties were considered to be “duties of employment,” and thus the players should have all of the rights of employees, including the right to unionize and to receive other benefits. Though the NCAA prohibits students from playing for wages, the players could collectively bargain for rights such as insurance, safety protection, and other types of monetary benefits.
Northwestern has appealed the decision, stating the university values academics in all of its sports programs and that the players’ primary role on campus is to be a student. Northwestern furthermore argued that playing sports is voluntary, a point the players contested by pointing out that their scholarship money is directly tied to their participation in sports, therefore their time spent practicing and playing is not, in fact, voluntary. The NLRB’s decision is well-reasoned while Northwestern’s arguments are more tenuous. Therefore, legal experts predict that the appeal will fail.
Though the Northwestern football players have yet to formally unionize, they are expected to do so in the near future. Additionally, athletes from many other schools are expected to follow suit and demand rights as employees of their respective colleges and universities.