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College athletes can unionize, federal agency says

NLRB: Northwestern Players Can Unionize

CHICAGO (AP) -- In a stunning ruling that could revolutionize college sports, a federal agency said Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation's first union of college athletes.

The decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board answered the question at the heart of the debate over the unionization bid: Do football players who receive full scholarships to the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can legally unionize?

Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB regional director, said in a 24-page decision that the players "fall squarely" within the broad definition of employee.

Pro-union activists cheered as they learned of the ruling.

"It's like preparing so long for a big game and then when you win - it is pure joy," said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the designated president of Northwestern's would-be football players' union.

An employee is regarded by law as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers. In the case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers and scholarships are a form of compensation, Ohr concluded.

The Evanston, Ill., university argued that college athletes, as students, do not fit in the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized workers. The school announced plans to appeal to labor authorities in Washington, D.C.

Supporters of the union bid argued that the university ultimately treats football as more important than academics for scholarship players. Ohr sided with the players on that issue.

"The record makes clear that the employer's scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school," Ohr wrote. He also noted that among the evidence presented by Northwestern, "no examples were provided of scholarship players being permitted to miss entire practices and/or games to attend their studies."

The ruling also described how the life of a football player at Northwestern is far more regimented than that of a typical student, down to requirements about what they can and can't eat and whether they can live off campus or purchase a car. At times, players put 50 or 60 hours a week into football, he added.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern's vice president for university relations, said in a statement that while the school respects "the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it."

The next step would be for scholarship players to vote on whether to formally authorize the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, to represent them, according to the NLRB decision.

The specific goals of CAPA include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships.

But critics have argued that giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize could hurt college sports in numerous ways, including raising the prospect of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments.

For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, such as Northwestern, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities.

Outgoing Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter took a leading role in establishing CAPA. The United Steelworkers union has been footing the legal bills.

Colter, who has entered the NFL draft, said nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on the Wildcats roster backed the union bid, though only he expressed his support publicly.

He said the No. 1 reason to unionize was to ensure injured players have their medical needs met.

"With the sacrifices we make athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of," Colter told ESPN.

The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has pushed for a $2,000-per-player stipend to help athletes defray some expenses. Critics say that is not nearly enough, considering players help bring in millions of dollars to their schools and conferences.

In a written statement, the NCAA said it disagreed with the notion that student-athletes are employees.

"We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid," the NCAA said.

The developments are coming to a head at a time when major college programs are awash in cash generated by new television deals that include separate networks for the big conferences. The NCAA tournament generates an average of $771 million a year in television rights itself, much of which is distributed back to member schools by the NCAA.

Attorneys for CAPA argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players' labor to generate billions of dollars in profits. The NLRB ruling noted that from 2003 to 2013 the Northwestern program generated $235 million in revenue - profits the university says went to subsidize other sports.

During the NLRB's five days of hearings in February, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald took the stand for union opponents, and his testimony sometimes was at odds with Colter's.

Colter told the hearing that players' performance on the field was more important to Northwestern than their in-class performance, saying, "You fulfill the football requirement and, if you can, you fit in academics." Asked why Northwestern gave him a scholarship of $75,000 a year, he responded: "To play football. To perform an athletic service."

But Fitzgerald said he tells players academics come first, saying, "We want them to be the best they can be ... to be a champion in life."

Join the discussion

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mafazyt March 27 2014 at 8:08 AM

Education has gone into the realm of edutainment, and the results speak for themselves.

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sherri.donnelly March 26 2014 at 9:36 PM

If you're an athlete, you CHOSE to be, and you CHOSE the opportunity presented to you in order to participate in sports. As for compensation, if you think that all the "millions" made by your university are going to end up in you're pocket, forget it. You'll be paying your part in union dues. First, consider the compensation you're already getting, without the "union". How many of you pay for the training facilities you practice in every day. Those facilities are state of the art and most often, limited to the athletes. The locker room facilities, clothing, uniforms, shoes, protective equipment are handed to you....do you hand a check back to pay for that?? How about all the transportation you receive to and from your events, do you write a check for that too??? The food given to you at all the events and during travel??? Do you provide a check for the calories you take in?? How about the medical resources available to you if you get hurt?? Most universities are tied to local medical facilities that provide you with state of the art medical treatment and ongoing services. Oh, and have I gotten to the fact that so many of you are provided with a scholarship that covers tuition, room, board, and food programs????? NO, I hadn't even touched the topic of the EDUCATION you receive to help you make it in the world when the professional level isn't an option or when you're finished with the few years you participate. The compensation you gain for your CHOICE to play the sport, is above and beyond what most consider and to complain that you're not getting enough....quit being so damn greedy! Get an education and move on...the rest of us have, and are better for it.

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Jerry March 27 2014 at 8:35 AM

This is absolute BS and will ruin college sports. The director is obviously pushing an agenda that is political in nature, not looking out for the best interest of the players or colleges. What a travesty! When will the madness end?

Flag Reply +8 rate up
mlaurel58 March 27 2014 at 8:46 AM

How much debt does a typical NW student owe after four years...and these people say they are not currently compensated? If this happens it will end D-1 FB, BB, & Hockey......at least for me it will.

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airborn333 March 26 2014 at 9:33 PM

Is America changing or what?

Flag Reply +3 rate up
j2j3 March 26 2014 at 9:29 PM

Be careful of what you ask for! Do not be surprised if you see tuition waivers go away.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
ga7smi j2j3 March 26 2014 at 9:33 PM

they should go away

Flag Reply +2 rate up
anyolname716 March 27 2014 at 8:47 AM

While I agree that there should be some kind of long term care for injuries that happened while playing, I don't agree that they are employees. First, they know of the risks of injury. Most have been playing sports since grade school. They are well aware of the risks, and choose to do so. Schools should not be held too accountable for something they are not forcing the person to do. Yes, the schools take in Millions of dollars. That is what happens when you have a top notch program. You need that money for the facilities, coaches and everything else that comes along with it. Talented student athletes want to get into the best program possible. The better programs have large budgets, they have better equipment, coaches, doctors, trainers, classes, professors and prestige. If all you cared about is the education, go play for a community college. There is more given to them than just a scholarship. Good coaches teach manners, how to be responsible and to have empathy. If it's a top notch program, you also are getting job training for a possible career in professional sports. The better the program, the more likely you will get a better job. This holds true regardless if it's sports or not. You think a lawyer from a community college is as sought after as one from Harvard? Do you think you are getting a better quality player from NU or your local community college? You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't know how to use it it's no good.

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1 reply
Mark anyolname716 March 27 2014 at 8:54 AM

Silliest argument I've ever heard. Policemen and firemen also know the risks, so I guess they aren't employees either, huh?

Flag Reply 0 rate up
mafazyt March 27 2014 at 8:54 AM

It's edutainment from high school through college and the results speak for themselves. American schools budget as much for fun and games as they do for academics.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
rbell72981 March 27 2014 at 8:57 AM

What a joke ruling. The board should be impeached . This is what happens when the system gets full of leftest. The democrats repaying the crook unions.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
rbell72981 March 27 2014 at 8:58 AM

If a free college education is not enough pay...then stay home.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
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