Download: Are College Athletes University Employees?

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(Courtesy:Shenet.Org via MGN Online)

(CNN) — The National Labor Relations Board in Chicago has ruled that football players at Northwestern University are employees and can unionize, the board said Wednesday.

In a statement, Northwestern acknowledged the ruling and says it plans to appeal.

The players’ petition was a way to get a seat at the bargaining table in college sports and could change the landscape of the NCAA model.

Northwestern University fought the petition by saying its players are students, not employees.

But the board’s decision indicates that there was enough evidence presented that the athletes are employees of the university — getting paid in the form of scholarships, working between 20 and 50 hours per week and generating millions of dollars for their institutions.

The athletes have said they’re seeking better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships and the possibility of being paid.

Richard Epstein, labor law professor at New York University, said the ruling has “vast implications for the structure of the sport, if upheld.”

But he noted an appeal would likely take years to resolve.

The regional NLRB office said any requests for review of its decision must be filed with the board’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. by April 9.

The NCAA promptly said that while it wasn’t party to the proceeding, it was “disappointed” with the board’s ruling and 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,” said the statement from NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy. “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.”

Last week, Northwestern University’s president emeritus said that if the football players were successful forming a union, he could see the prestigious private institution giving up Division I football.

“If we got into collective bargaining situations, I would not take for granted that the Northwesterns of the world would continue to play Division I sports,” Henry Bienen said at the annual conference for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

He further said that if the players won their fight, private institutions with high academic standards — he specifically cited Duke and Stanford — could abandon the current model in order to preserve academic integrity.

He compared it to the pullback of the Ivy League schools decades ago, when the Ivy League conference decided to opt out of postseason play and to end athletic scholarships, preserving the emphasis on academics for the players.

“In the 1950s, the ‘Ivies’ had some of the highest-ranked football teams in the country. The Princeton teams were ranked in the top 5 or 10 at that time. They continue periodically to have ranked basketball teams, but they’ve given up a certain kind of model of sports,” he said, adding that “under certain conditions” the same could happen at other private elite universities that “continue to play big time sports.”

Jerry Price, senior associate athletic director at Princeton, said that change for the Ivy League allowed those schools to maintain academic integrity in the sports where, at other schools, academics can often be compromised in the name of the game.

“It was sort of a breaking point moment,” Price said, saying the Ivy League schools made the decision not to move forward like the bigger conferences — to “draw the line with the commercialization of what football was becoming.”

“And the results have been that Ivy football is not what it was in the first half of the 20th century,” Price said. “Certainly not like Big Ten football, SEC football. Its crowds are generally less than 10,000 people. They play only 10 games a year. … Certainly not what is going on at BCS level.”

Bienen, who was president of Northwestern from 1995 to 2009, made his comments during a panel discussion that included a presentation from Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association (NCPA) and the man who helped organize former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter to lead a unionization attempt.

Huma talked, as he has for months, about the issues his organization sees as great flaws in the current NCAA model. The NCPA believes that athletes in the revenue-generating sports of college football and men’s basketball are taken advantage of by universities, conferences and the NCAA, making billions from games, while the players sometimes struggle with basic needs like medical care, concussion testing and guaranteed scholarships.

In March, the NCPA took its fight before the NLRB in Chicago and presented a case during a five-day hearing. Both sides recently submitted court briefs.

Northwestern’s appeal could go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, and it could take years before there is a definitive decision.

During his daylong testimony last week, Colter talked about year-round time requirements, at times 50 hours a week devoted to football.

Colter said he had to give up his major related to pre-med studies because he couldn’t fit the classes into his schedule. The university countered that by bringing in students who were able to stay in rigorous classes, but Colter’s sentiment was echoed by the NCAA itself in a 2012 survey that asked athletes what they would change about their college experience.

About 15% of men’s football, baseball and basketball players said they would have had different majors had they not been athletes. Twelve percent of Division I football players said athletics prevented them from majoring in what they wanted. The average time spent on athletics in-season hovered around 40 hours per week for all three sports, according to the survey.

That flies in the face of the NCAA 20-hour rule, which states that, no matter the sport, coaches can’t take up more than 20 hours of their players’ time.

CNN’s Devon M. Sayers contributed to this report.


  • lame

    They are used by the corporate athletic departments to bring in literally millions of dollars to the cash registers. My only question is if they aren’t employees who in blazes is?

    • Carolyn Barnes

      so the kids that play high school sports are employees too ?? Their schools get money for their sporting competitions……How far back do we take this? College athletes already get room, board, tuition, medical……??? If they are employees, are they paying taxes on all of this ???

  • Alise

    There should be medical/concussion coverage in addition to the scholarship monies. Possibly some spending money if they are unable to hold a part-time job to pay for housing. They should also be held accountable for GETTING the education. Most don’t make professional teams and then what do they have? 4 party-filled years and that’s it?

  • Cindi

    As the mom of a college athlete I think that the idea of unionizing colleges athletes is absurd. My son has a sports scholarship that is not a full ride but has a coach that helped us find other grants to send our son to an outstanding University where he would not have been able to attend otherwise. For that privilege he will work hard academically and athletically. This ruling could end college athletics and at the very least cause tuition to sky rocket. What’s next?

  • Carolyn Barnes

    just another example of unions trying to get their money grubbing hands in to something else they can ruin. If they do become union, who is going to pay their ridiculous union dues….the tax payers ?….the college ?…..

  • Peg

    My Grandson had a football scholarship and he works hard for it. Last year he had to stay at school all summer and could not find a job around his Football. Most of them are taken. This year he told them he had to come home to work. Not all college are 4 points average. But he has to hold a average to stay on the team. He comes from a average working Family. With no support from the Father’s side. So we Dan use all the help he can get. You have to do a lot for your Scholarship. It isn’t just a free ride.

  • Michael Cozzesn

    If the colleges would have been reasonable about the time spent in practice, the chances of injury, the amount of time needed for study plus the millions of dollars these athletes bring to the schools. There should have been a reasonable about the return in cash be paid to the students in the first place. I would highly doubt that this unionizing of student athletes would have taken place. Instead, these highly paid collage administrator who really never made it in business in the first place, should have known that what goes around, comes around. It was there own greed that created this mess and now I am afraid that sports, students and colleges will have to answer for collage administrations short sightedness. Now everyone loses !

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