NLRB Makes Call for College Football Union
April 28, 2014 by Dalisai Nisperos
For the first time in history, college level athletes have been classified as employees who have a right to form a union. We at Beeson, Tayer and Bodine (BT&B) have been following this in sports news along with fans and most law firms with a labor law practice. The NLRB Regional Director in Chicago ordered an election among scholarship football players at Northwestern University. That vote was held on April 25, 2014, but ballots have been impounded as the NLRB granted Northwestern’s request to review the Regional Director’s decision. The Board’s decision is not expected for several months.
The Regional Director found that Northwestern University football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are “employees” for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act because they provide the university football services in exchange for compensation in the form of scholarships.
The Regional Director noted that to play football, a scholarship athlete is required to sign a tender offer that works like a contract for hire. The offer identifies the scholarship amount, and covers a player’s tuition, educational fees, and living expenses. The scholarship may be immediately reduced or cancelled by the team coach, in consultation with the college athletic department, if the player becomes ineligible or withdraws from the team.
The Regional Director also concluded that football athletes are closely controlled by the university throughout the entire year. Players spend 50 to 60 hours weekly on football duties before the academic year even begins, and 40 to 50 hours weekly on football activities during the football season. Itineraries during these times include activities for up to 16 hours a day and dictate the times that players wake up, eat meals, attend meetings, practice, work out, receive medical treatment, and go to bed. Coaches also restrict, or must approve, aspects of players’ private lives including their living arrangements, the cars they drive, whether they can obtain outside employment, and their internet postings. That some restrictions are intended to achieve compliance with NCAA regulations does not change the fact that the employer was exercising control over the athletes.
The Region rejected Northwestern’s argument that football athletes should be classified as students and not employees, finding instead that the “student-athlete” relationship with the University is primarily economic – not academic.
The Regional Director therefore found all current Northwestern football players receiving scholarships, who are still eligible to play, eligible to vote in the election. Walk-on players who do not receive scholarships were not eligible to vote. If approved by the NLRB, the decision will set an important precedent that private university athletes in football, basketball, and other sports may be classified as employees with the right to form a union and bargain with their university employers.
BT&B is a labor law firm in Sacramento and Oakland with an active practice that works with employees and unions to protect their rights. The rights of college athletes focus on a narrow employment situation. However, we believe American’s youth needs to know more about their rights and encourage readers to review our article on Why millennials should care about unions.
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