A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled Wednesday that scholarship athletes should be considered “employees” with rights to unionize under federal law. The decision stems from an attempt by the Northwestern University football team to form a labor union.
The NLRB regional director ordered a union election, declaring, “Eligible to vote are all football players receiving football grant-in-aid scholarship and not having exhausted their playing eligibility employed by the Employer located at 1501 Central Street, Evanston, Illinois,” i.e., Northwestern University Department of Athletics and Recreation.
The ruling paves the way for Northwestern players to form a union and elect their leader. The next step in the process will be a vote of the full NLRB. If allowed to unionize, questions regarding workman’s compensation, minimum wage, health benefits, and working conditions would necessarily embroil collegiate athletics. Does the ruling professionalize amateur athletics–already in effect professionalized at certain top-tier programs–and compel mid-level programs to drop football as a result of the expense? Given the unprecedented nature of the ruling, nobody knows for sure.
Kain Colter, a graduating senior quarterback who helped organize his teammates, testified before the NLRB that college players often work fourteen hour days in preparation for the season. He explained, “It’s a job, there is no way around it–it’s a job.”