Many observers were quite surprised by the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)’s regional office in Chicago which allowed scholarship football players at Northwestern University to form a union. Interestingly, the ruling only applies to the 85 scholarship players on the team within the proposed bargaining unit and excludes the 37 non-scholarship players.
The University had argued that the players did not meet the definition of “employees.” It relied in part on a 2004 case that ruled graduate teaching assistants at Brown University were not employees and therefore could not unionize. The decision in the Northwestern case was distinguished from the Brown case because the graduate teaching assistants’ duties were directly related to and covered the same subject matter as their degree requirements, whereas playing football was not required by any degree program.
The ruling relied on several additional factors including: (1) The players spent a huge number of hours each week in football-related activities, which exceeded the hours spent in academic pursuits; (2) The players received compensation in the form of scholarships which were entirely conditioned on continued participation in the football program; and (3) The University received value which exceeded the total costs of the football program (Northwestern University v. Collegiate Athletes Players Association, NLRB Chicago Reg. Dir., March 2014).
Tips: This ruling may not be the final word as the decision was issued by a Regional Director of the NLRB. The University is expected to appeal this to the full Board in Washington, DC. Stay tuned for updates on this case.