A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that football players at Northwestern University have a right to unionize, a decision with potentially major impact on college athletics.
In a 24-page ruling in the case, NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr said that because the players received scholarship money and were subject to special rules that did not apply to other university students, they were in fact "employees" of the college, and not "primarily students."
"Thus, I direct an immediate [union] election in this case," Ohr ruled.
Former Northwestern player Kain Kolter, head of the College Athletes Players Association, which filed the complaint, tweeted: "So proud of my teammates, Ramogi, lawyers, and supporters around the nation! This is a HUGE win for ALL college athletes!"
In a statement, Northwestern University said it was "disappointed" with the decision and plans to appeal it to the full NLRB and explore its other legal options.
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes," said Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations.
In its argument against unionizing, the school had relied heavily on the NLRB's decision in a 2004 case involving Brown University graduate assistants. In that case, the board said that despite receiving scholarship money from the university, the assistants' relationship with the school was still primarily educational, so they were not employees who could form unions.
Ohr said the reasoning in that case did not apply to the Northwestern athletes, since many of their activities, like training camp, do not involve an academic component. He also noted that the athletes must devote "40 to 50 hours per week" to football during the regular college season.
"Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies," Ohr noted, with no apparent irony.
The ruling today is specific to Northwestern and therefore does not mean that all college athletic programs are automatically eligible to unionize. But it does create a substantial opportunity for athletes to petition the NLRB to allow them to.