The U.S. government decided on Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University, who get scholarship money are effectively school employees and can vote on organizing what could become the first labor union for U.S. college athletes.
In a move that will fuel a debate over whether college athletes are amateurs or professionals, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional office said scholarship players at the Evanston, Illinois, school, who have not exhausted their playing eligibility, can vote in a union election.
The NLRB will supervise the vote. No date has been set and delays could lay ahead if Northwestern appeals the decision, as many labor lawyers expect the university will do.
But if a majority of the Northwestern Wildcats ultimately votes for a union, they could shake up the sporting world by opening the door for other athletes at private universities, which are subject to the National Labor Relations Act.
“This is going to reignite the controversy over whether somebody is actually an amateur or not,” said Pitta & Giblin labor and employment law attorney Joseph Farelli in New York.
“Unless the decision is overturned ... it will put additional pressure on the NCAA to change its rules with regard to what compensation and monies can be paid to student athletes.”
NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr concluded in a 24-page decision that Northwestern can be considered an employer, under the National Labor Relations Act, and the roughly 85 football players on scholarship are university employees.
Ohr’s decision to direct an election is expected to be appealed to the full five-member NLRB board in Washington, D.C. by the university, located on Lake Michigan north of Chicago.