It was only a matter of time before the controversy surrounding student athletes as employees became a topic for judicial review. Thanks to the National Labor Relations Board(NLRB), we are one step further.
On March 26, 2014, a Regional Director of the NLRB held that college football athletes receiving scholarships at Northwestern University were employees and permitted to form a union under the National Labor Relations Act. An employee is defined as “a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, in return for payment.” The NLRB rejected the argument that athletes were students first and attended the university for educational purposes and not for the benefit of the athletic programs after several athletes testified that their coaches discouraged them from taking any morning classes that interfered with their practice schedule, having any majors that were academically demanding, and spending less than 50 hours a week during the fall semester on football related activities.
Other factors that influenced the Regional Director’s decision were the various policies applied to the football players. They could not obtain outside employment without permission to ensure adherence of NCAA rules, freshmen and sophomores were required to live in on campus housing while upperclassmen were required to receive permission to sign certain leases off campus, they were subject to social media policies and restricted to certain media appearances, they were prohibited from profiting off their image or reputation, they were prohibited from hazing and gambling, they were prohibited from swearing in public, and they were required to adhere to various drug and alcohol policies. Additionally, they were required to give the university the authority to use their name, likeness, and image for any purpose.
N While this decision does not require the university to provide the football players anything more than tuition, room, board, and books, it does open the door for players to unionize and make demands for better economic and workplace conditions. If such demands are not met, they could go on strike which would cost the university millions of dollars. Keep in mind such revenue also benefits non-revenue generating sports (i.e. all other sports except basketball).
It is important to note, however, that this decision also permits other athletes receiving scholarships to unionize even if their programs do not generate revenue. This could force universities to reduce the number of scholarships for athletes, particularly among females. Considering that most NCAA student athletes do not play professionally, this also reduces their ability to use their athletic talents to receive an education.
Although this case is not about whether college athletes should be paid commensurate to the revenue its program receives, the NLRB did reject concerns many people make in support of not paying student athletes or treating them as employees. In fact, it noted the disparity of compensating athletes with tuition, room, board, and books while the football program receives over $30 million in revenue. Thus igniting the ethical issue of universities making millions off athletes seeking an education.