Should college athletes have the right to unionize?
April 16, 2014
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
The 2014 pre-season may be one of the most dramatic for college football, not because of the new recruits and the hiring and firing of coaches, but because of the possible actions of the scholarship players on the Northwestern University football team. The players have been granted the right to unionize by a National Labor Relations Board regional director, who ruled that the players are school employees.
The players argued that they should be able to unionize because the university is private and not public, their playing is not part of the educational mission, and they are employees of the university who receive compensation through scholarships for services rendered on the field. The regional director, Peter Sung Ohr, who studied the football players’ schedule, agreed. He said the players’ significant time commitment to football activities took precedence over academic work and cited the fact that football generates revenue for Northwestern.
Unionizing would mean that the players would vote to be represented by a union, in this case, the College Athletes Players Association, which would bargain for wages and other benefits on the players’ behalf. Union practices are regulated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the executive agency that oversees unions and proper employment practices, and enforces labor laws.
Unions are legally recognized groups of employees that elect representatives to speak on their behalf to management. Unions exist in many occupations, from actors to assembly-line workers, and each one is a little different. Most unions negotiate and oversee labor contracts, which are agreements between the union and the company that detail salaries, benefits, hiring and firing practices, and worker safety.
In the Northwestern case, only football players who have scholarships would be eligible to unionize. The players decided to try to unionize based on grievances they had with the controls and regulations that the university imposed on the team, including:
- Freshmen and sophomores are required to live on campus.
- The athletic department must approve any outside employment.
- The players are restricted on what they can post on the Internet.
- The players cannot profit from their likeness. They sign releases that allow the university and the Big Ten (Northwestern’s athletic conference) to use their name or likeness for profit without compensating the player.
Northwestern University argued that the football players are not employees, but students, first and foremost. Their argument centers on the belief that as university athletes, football is part of their academic process, and therefore their scholarships are for academics, not for services rendered. Northwestern also contends that by allowing the players to unionize, chaos would ensue because student athletes in the union could negotiate economic and non-economic conditions and possibly strike while others on the same team couldn’t.
Northwestern has appealed the regional director’s ruling to the National Labor Relations Board. The losing party in the Northwestern case could appeal to a federal appeals court, and the case could continue to the Supreme Court. The court look to a 1980 decision in which it ruled that faculty members at Yeshiva University were not regular employees because “principles developed for use in the industrial setting cannot be imposed blindly on the academic world” because it is different.
The players will vote by secret ballot on April 25 on whether they want to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association. The simple majority vote will determine whether the players join the union.
The outcome of the case could mean major changes for the National Collegiate Athletic Association and private universities, but not public ones. The National Labor Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1935, does not cover employees of state and local governments, including state universities. State labor laws cover the rights of those employees.
What do you think?
Should Northwestern’s scholarship football players have the right to join a union? Are they school employees or students first? Should athletes in other college programs be allowed to unionize? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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