In a ruling that could revolutionize the college sports industry, a federal agency said Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation’s first union of college athletes.
Players on scholarships are compensated and thereby “fall squarely” within the federal definition of employees, said Peter Sung Ohr, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director. The agency’s 24-page decision—if upheld in the appeals process—could change college sports forever.
The ruling from the federal agency that regulates employee relations issues addresses a unique situation in American college sports, where the tradition of competition has created a system that generates billions of dollars but relies on players who are not paid other than with scholarships. The Northwestern players challenging that system argued that football is a job and schools make it clear to incoming players that athletics are a higher priority than academics.
But not all college athletes feel that way, officials with the NCAA insisted after the decision.
“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 officials with the NCAA, which regulates college sports. All of the big NCAA conferences also disagreed with the decision, and Northwestern administrators announced plans to appeal to labor authorities in Washington, D.C.
Pro-union activists, on the other hand, cheered the ruling.
“It’s like preparing so long for a big game and then when you win,” said former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, the president of Northwestern’s would-be football players union. Huma and now-graduated quarterback Kain Colter led the case, supported by the United Steelworkers. Huma said scholarship players would vote within 30 days on whether to formally authorize the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) to represent them.
The push to unionize comes at a time when major college programs are awash in cash generated by new television deals that include separate networks for the big conferences. The NCAA basketball tournament generates about $770 million a year in television rights alone, much of which is distributed to member schools. The Sweet 16 begins Thursday in Anaheim, Calif., and Memphis, Tenn.
Attorneys for CAPA argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players’ labor to generate billions of dollars in profits. The NLRB ruling noted that between 2003 and 2013 the Northwestern program generated $235 million in revenue. But the university claims those profits went to support other sports.
No sport makes money outside basketball and football programs, and not all of them are profitable either. In the 2012 fiscal year, just 23 out of 100 college athletics departments broke even in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Most universities subsidize their athletics departments, with much of those funds coming from student fees. For example, North Carolina State University students paid more than $300 this year in “intercollegiate athletics” fees.
But billions of dollars are still at stake, and because of the money’s many sources and the way it’s divided between the NCAA, conferences, and schools, it will continue to create legal gray areas and heated debates. The specific goals of CAPA include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, reducing head injuries, and potentially letting players pursue commercial sponsorships. But university officials worry collective bargaining will lead to strikes or lockouts.
The decision, for now, only addresses players at Northwestern, a private school. But the precedent could quickly expand to unionization rights at all private schools. The NLRB does not have jurisdiction over public universities. But Huma said Wednesday’s decision is the “first domino to fall” and that teams at all schools could eventually follow the Wildcats’ lead.