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NLRB rules Northwestern athletes qualify as employees

In a decision that could upend college sports, the National Labor Relations Board regional director ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University football players are employees.

Peter Sung Ohr ordered a union election among the 85 players on scholarship.

Northwestern University says it will appeal to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C.

Further appeals are expected, possibly up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

John G. Adam, a lead attorney for the College Athletes Players Association, said Wednesday, “It’s definitely a historic event.”

“We hope this is a historic decision that will improve the conditions for the players,” said Adam in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re not critical of Northwestern. It is not an attack upon Northwestern. It’s a fine program and a fine university, and the players appreciate everything they get. But that doesn’t mean you cannot organize or try to develop legal rights that will benefit not only Northwestern players, but players throughout the country.”

MORE: College sports on the verge of change, but appeals process looms

In the 24-page ruling, Ohr called the relationship between the university and the scholarship-receiving football players “an economic one that involves the transfer of great sums of money to the players in the form of scholarships.

“The record makes clear that the Employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school,” Ohr wrote in the decision.

“The employer expends between $61,000 and $76,000 per scholarship per year or, in other words, more than $5 million per year for the 85 scholarships.”

The ruling said that walk-on players who do not receive scholarships constitute a separate category, so they wouldn’t be part of a union.

“In contrast to scholarships, need-based financial aid that walk-ons (and other regular students) receive is not provided in exchange for any type of service to the employer,” the ruling said. “For this reason, the walk-ons are free to quit the team at any time without losing their financial aid. This simply is not true for players receiving football scholarships who stand to lose their scholarship if they ‘voluntarily withdraw’ from the team.”

NLRB finds for student athletes unionization

Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the ruling, if sustained, could have a “transformative impact” on college athletics nationwide, including possibly letting players have control over their licensed images and their names on their jerseys.

But Adam said CAPA will negotiate nothing that will jeopardize the players’ eligibility to play under NCAA rules.

“If the NCAA rules change and allow for the rights to (the players’) image, these are things the union could bargain for,” he said. “The NCAA is constantly changing the rules, including a change two years ago in the length of scholarships from one to four years. .. It’s not the end. This is the beginning of the end of the exploitation of the players.”

The players will first try to negotiate medical coverage of their sports-related injuries, even after they graduate, and ways to minimize concussions while they are playing and practicing, Adam said.

Adam also said a union election could be held soon, and that the ballots could be impounded while Ohr’s decision continues to be argued.

Colleges, employers, athletes and sports enthusiasts nationwide have been watching anxiously as Northwestern University and its scholarship-winning football players battled over the players’ status and right to form a labor union.

Both sides presented their arguments in February to a NLRB hearing officer at the Dirksen Federal Building, ending with football coach Pat Fitzgerald testifying that he emphasizes academics to his players, while conceding that he told the Sun-Times in an earlier interview that playing football was, indeed, a full-time job.

Should college athletes be able to unionize?

Asked by a lawyer for the football players about the article, which focused on cost-of-living stipends, Fitzgerald said he believes playing football is a full-time job from “a responsibility standpoint.”

Fitzgerald said players must attend class and are not dissuaded from their dream careers or punished for needing extra study time — contradicting earlier testimony from quarterback Kain Colter.

Colter had testified that he couldn’t fulfill his dream of becoming an orthopedic doctor because of the university’s football demands, including 50 to 60 hours a week of practice, training and playing.

Colter said in a statement Wednesday, “It’s important that players have a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect their well-being.”

“Football and basketball players generate billions of dollars per year,” Colter said. “Minimizing the risk of concussions should be a priority, and shielding current and former players from sports-related medical bills should be guaranteed.”

Meanwhile, Chris Watson, Northwestern’s dean of undergraduate admissions, testified in February that coaches may appeal the admissions office’s decision to reject athletes based on academic criteria, but the final decisions remain with the admissions office.

Fitzgerald, repeating that his priority is the students’ lifelong skills, said he moved football practice time to mornings from afternoons in his second coaching season to give the players greater access to classes, since few classes are held in early mornings at Northwestern.

He said only two players had their scholarships taken away during his eight-year tenure, and those were for misconduct that violated school rules.

Fitzgerald agreed with the football players’ lawyer, Gary Kohlman, that the players can spend 24 to 25 hours over a two-day period, Friday and Saturday, when they travel to away games.

But he repeated other university officials’ testimony that the NCAA caps the number of hours to 20 a week under Countable Athletically Related Activity (CARA) rules. Those rules omit hours in travel, warmups, extra practices and other activities that the NCAA deems voluntary.