A Paradigm-Shifting Ruling in College Sports: NLRB Says Northwestern Football Players Can Unionize

It’s really happening, and the day of reckoning is upon us.

An issue that should really be the number-one issue in college swimming right now, and in some corners it is, will now be front-and-center, as the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Northwestern football players do have the right to unionize as employees. Specifically, the ruling says that those who are on scholarship and have not exhausted their eligibility are, in fact, employees.

In his ruling, Peter Ohr, the Chicago regional director of the NLRB, said that Northwestern football players, who led by their quarterback Kain Coulter into forming a union earlier this year, are now to create a union board to manage it.

See the full ruling here.

Northwestern has already said that it will appeal the ruling to the national arm of the NLRB in Washington, D.C.

The NCAA, while not specifically a named party in the suit, does have a significant stake in the outcome, and they were quick to disagree with the ruling on Wednesday.

“While not a party to the proceeding, the NCAA is disappointed that the NLRB Region 13 determined the Northwestern football team may vote to be considered university employees. We strongly disagree 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.

Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college. We want student athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

This could literally be the end of college sports as we know it. Student-athletes now will be able to not only negotiate over pay and wages, but a wide range of issues that would fall under the heading of “workplace safety” and “working environment.” If players don’t like their coach, they now have the right, as a union, to protest that coach, and depending on the laws of their local jurisdiction, they could refuse to play without risking their scholarships.

For swimming, this means a scenario where colleges might be forced to choose between investing their resources in the swim team, and using those same resources to satiate the demands of the unionized football and basketball teams. For many schools, especially those with very strong academic reputations like Northwestern, there is a chance, and it’s not a remote chance, that this will all be viewed as too far outside of the scope of the business of academics, and they might drop collegiate athletics altogether.

Athletes could now have the right to negotiate for more years of eligibility. Many college athletes are now around for 5 years or more, and they have the right to collectively bargain for 5 years of eligibility (not as individuals, but as a larger group).

This is going to turn into a big game of chicken. With the progress the Northwestern players have made, it’s unlikely that they’ll back down even if the NCAA cedes many of the major points. The problem is that the athletes, in this case as employees of Northwestern University, can only collectively bargain with Northwestern University, who will then have to turn and try and fit those demands into the guidelines of the NCAA: and NCAA that is made up of its hundreds of member institutions. This could restructure the entire NCAA, as schools will be forced to collectively bargain on issues over which they have no individual control.

Our prediction is that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and within 5 years that there will be a college football season that is, in whole or in part, boycotted. The good news is that there are people around college swimming who have already been planning for this scenario, but there is no way that this decision will leave swimming untouched – for positive or negative. The instinct is to say that it will be negative, because the attitude in swimming is that most things that are good for football are bad for swimming, but there’s too many unanswered questions, too many appeals remaining, and too many loose ends, to be able to draw those conclusions just yet.

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6 years ago

Employers will also, I assume, have the right to fire their employees en masse. I will have no sympathy for those young men who will lose their means to pay for their education. Such is the nature of collective bargaining – it goes both ways.

Scott K
Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

As someone who played college hockey 30 years ago, I’ll say that the NCAA may be one of the most corrupt, out of touch, poorly managed organizations in the country. Only the football bowl organizations are worse. A bunch of old men who think that the world is stuck somewhere in the 50s. Hey NCAA, come with the rest of us into the new century.

Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

What are you talking about? Employers always have the right to fire employees en masse. Unionization almost always serves to protact the status quo–that is to keep employees at their positions. It’s not like a University could fire their entire football team and then bring in scabs who could compete. This isn’t The Replacements: College Edition.

6 years ago

I referring to shutting down the football program at a given university – I am not referring to scabs. But you raise a good point – owners could lock out the scholarship athletes and bring in the scabs. They would still get revenue sharing from the NCAA even with the inferior product.

Reply to  anonymous
6 years ago

They might need it to pay for the damages that might ensue from this ruling…

College Swimmer
6 years ago

In TX schools the Alumni would never allow for a complete cutting of football/athletic programs, talk about billions in lost endowment.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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