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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anonymous
7 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
7 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.

CraigH
Reply to  anonymous
7 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.

anonymous
7 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.

Patsy
Reply to  anonymous
7 years ago

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

College Swimmer
7 years ago

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

COACHT
7 years ago

So…does this mean that any student on ANY scholarship provided by the university can join a union or form a union. That they will all be employees. What it could mean is the end of all scholarships and schools just going non-scholarship in the sports. Many wouldn’t make it but that could happen as well I would think.

COACHT
Reply to  Braden Keith
7 years ago

I read a release by ESPN. I caught something interesting. It stated something to the point that currently the push is forming unions at private schools like Northwestern because the federal labor agency doesn’t have jurisdiction at public universities. Thought that was interesting!!!

Patsy
Reply to  COACHT
7 years ago

Based on what some other experts have said, it would seem that each case would have to be looked at on its own facts. So if school B makes its swimmers, for example, train for say, 35 hours/week, and the coach has control over most aspects of their lives, those swimmers could be employees whilst swimmers in school C down the road, that adheres to NCAA rules, most likely will not.

Steve Nolan
7 years ago

This will only kill non-revenue sports if schools want it to – money can be shifted away from fairly exorbitant coach and administrator salaries to do pay for them.

That type of upheaval will probably have to be legislated, though. (What am I saying, probably…it will.)

Reply to  Steve Nolan
7 years ago

“… Money can be shifted away from fairly exorbitant coach and administrator salaries…”

Not happening. No way, no how.

Steve Nolan
Reply to  Morgan Priestley
7 years ago

Oh, they won’t do it themselves, of course. It will have to be forced upon them. How exactly to do that…I have no idea. The pipe dream is they’re mandated to continue funding non-revenue sports at current levels while allowing football/basketball kids to get paid. Additional money’s gotta come from somewhere, current salaries being the easiest place to trim some fat.

(This just came out this week and it’s got my blood a-boilin’ over this stuff.)

Patsy
Reply to  Steve Nolan
7 years ago

At the moment, the footballers are not asking for salaries although invariably it will come to that I am sure. It therefore seems that until this happens, the costs will only relate to taxes (including back taxes unless legislation pardons them), insurance, and minor damages. If so, the financial impact should be manageable.

SwimFan
7 years ago

A quack ruling which will never survive in court and only applicable to private institutions. State labor boards have jurisdiction at the public universities.

If an employee then the member institutions could say you are ineligible as that qualifies as a professional.

Go to the developmental league if you think you are creating so much value and see what people will pay to watch. That realty will bite.

The schools are the brand value. You get a scholarship, coaching, facilities and the opportunity to build your brand which you can monetize when you turn pro just like any student when they graduate and get a job

How many people would care about Northwestern football without the school brand if they… Read more »

Patsy
7 years ago

It is a shame the footballers were forced to become so desperate. When common decency flees, people become desperate and they don’t think they have anything to lose. It seems the footballers felt that is where they were.

1. You go to school A because you believe you will get a good education/you might get spotted and go pro, and you can play a game you are good at.
2. You can’t otherwise afford to attend A, but are given a scholarship and you attend.
3. You are very good at what you do and A earns millions from what you and your team mates do.
4. You put your life on hold because of the coach… Read more »

Patsy
7 years ago

I looked for the ruling before posting above, but couldn’t find it. Now have. I have read it and I wish I could edit post above.

I should have known not to trust what journalists wrote – even those claiming to be lawyers! On reading the ruling, I am not sure that the ruling can’t be overturned. Also, I am not now sure what the footballers were originally unhappy about.

Also, the ruling is very precise, and it should be very easy for colleges to escape its ambits, and so the ruling might just be a storm in a teacup.

SwimSwam, can we please have an edit function. Please:)

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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