Has the Future of Collegiate Athletics Changed Forever?

Yesterday in Chicago, amidst all of the build up to this weekend’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 NCAA Tournament Games, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) issued a decision that may forever change the face of Collegiate Athletics.  This decision found that members of the Northwestern University football team qualify as Employees under The National Labor Relations Act (“Act”), and thus can unionize.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) has long deemed these scholarship athletes at private institutions to be student-athletes as opposed to employees.  This effectively rendered them incapable of unionizing or collectively bargaining with the institutions.

The general gist of the ruling is what all many sports fans and legal minds alike were interested in.  However, in reviewing the entire 24 page decision issued by the NLRB Regional Director, Peter Sung Ohr, I found there to be several additional points worth noting.

  •  Athletes at NCAA institutions have long been refereed to as “Student Athletes,” with the emphasis on the Student aspect.  The decision of the NLRB reflects that these Scholarship players at private institutions cannot be found to be “Primarily Students who only spend a limited amount of time performing their athletic duties.”
  • In relation to that point they found these football players in particular to spend roughly 40-60 hours a week on football year round and 20 hours in class when academics were in session.  Perhaps now instead of Student Athletes they will be referred to as Professionally Employed Athletes…. who also happen to be Students, some of the time.
  • Furthering that distinction, the Decision points out that the athletes’ complete lack of relationship with any academic faculty during their football duties “militates against a finding that they are merely students.”
  • The decision goes very in depth to compare and contrast this decision with a previous NLRB decision involving Graduate Students at Brown University. (Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004)).  The graduate students, who received both pay and credit for their duties, were ultimately determined not to be Employees under the Act.  However, this decision makes a clear showing the Graduate students were facing far different circumstances than these Athletes, and accordingly should not be treated the same under the Act.

Although these are only some highlights of the Decision rendered yesterday, they help paint a far different picture than many media reports are acknowledging.  That picture being painted here is that Northwestern will face an extremely difficult challenge in getting this Decision reversed upon Appeal.  That picture being painted here is that yesterday will ultimately be remembered as the day Collegiate Athletics changed forever.

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