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Northwestern University football's union victory playbook

What makes Northwestern football players who receive athletic scholarships university employees rather than students?

Excerpts from this week’s ruling by Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, detail his explanation:

** Their hours. “The players spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their football duties during a one-month training camp prior to the start of the academic year, and an additional 40 to 50 hours per week on those duties during the three or four month football season. Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies.”

** Their relationship with the university. “In this case, it is undisputed that the Employer’s scholarship players do not receive any academic credit for playing football. They are also not required to play football in order to obtain their undergraduate degree, regardless of which major they pursue. The fact that the players undoubtedly learn great life lessons from participating on the football team and take with them important values such as character, dedication, perseverance, and team work, is insufficient to show that their relationship with the Employer is primarily an academic one. Indeed, as already discussed above, this relationship is an economic one that involves the transfer of great sums of money to the players in the form of scholarships. The Employer expends between $61,000 and $76,000 per scholarship per year or in other words over five million dollars per year for the 85 scholarships.”

** Their bosses. “Here, the Employer’s scholarship players are in a different position than the graduate assistants (who were ruled ineligible to form a union in a separate case) since the academic faculty members do not oversee the athletic duties that the players’ perform. Instead, football coaches, who are not members of the academic faculty, are responsible for supervising the players’ athletic duties. This critical distinction certainly lessens any concern that imposing collective bargaining would have a ‘deleterious impact on overall educational decisions’ by the Employer’s academic faculty. While it is true that the Employer’s administration does play a role in determining whether to cancel a scholarship, Fitzgerald’s recommendation has been followed in the two instances where this has happened. Accordingly, the players’ lack of a relationship with the faculty when performing their athletic duties militates against a finding that they are merely students.”

** Their pay: “Unlike the graduate assistants, the facts here show that the Employer never offers a scholarship to a prospective student unless they intend to provide an athletic service to the Employer. In fact, the players can have their scholarships immediately canceled if they voluntarily withdraw from the football team. Even players who are not starters and consequently do not play in any games, must still attend all of the practices, workouts, and meetings as a condition of retaining their scholarship. 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. 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.”

** Special rules: Players must abide by the Team Handbook rules. “Northwestern’s regular student population is not subject to these rules and policies. Specifically, freshmen and sophomore year players receiving scholarships are required to live in on-campus dormitories. Only upperclassmen players are permitted to live off campus and even then they are required to submit their lease to Fitzgerald for his approval before they can enter into it. If players want to obtain outside employment, they must likewise first obtain permission from the athletic department. This is so that the Employer can monitor whether the player is receiving any sort of additional compensation or benefit because of their athletic ability or reputation. Similarly, players are required to disclose to their coaches detailed information pertaining to the vehicle that they drive. The players must also abide by a social media policy, which restricts what they can post on the Internet, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In fact, the players are prohibited from denying a coach’s “friend” request and the former’s postings are monitored.”