Northwestern University Football Players Are Attempting to Unionize

Ryan SarniRyan Sarni, Labor Relations 

With the help of the United Steelworkers, the Northwestern University football team has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to form the NCAA’s first players union.  The effort was spearheaded by quarterback Kain Colter, who contacted the National College Players Association last year to start the process of organizing.  If the players are successful, their efforts could change the face of American college sports forever.

Mr. Colter stated that the unionization drive is not “because of any mistreatment by Northwestern.”  Rather, he is frustrated with the NCAA overall, stating that they are “like a dictatorship,” and that “[t]he only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”  Interestingly, the union states that it is not interested in requiring the NCAA to share some of its $5.15 billion in revenues with players.  Rather, they state that they want better protections against concussions and other injuries, as well as larger scholarships that cover the entire cost of college attendance. They said that they wouldn’t rule out asking for salaries for players in the future.

While this question will not likely be resolved by the NLRB for many years, it will depend on whether or not college football players meet the definition of “employee” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  The NCAA responded to the initial petition filing with a statement that said, in part, “student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act,” and that “their participation in college sports is voluntary.”  For the players to be classified as employees, the NLRB must rule that their relationship is largely “economic” as opposed to educational.  The union plans to only include students who receive scholarships for playing, and to argue that those scholarships are in fact compensation which renders the athletes employees.

The NLRA covers only private sector employers, so there is no risk of public colleges being subject to collective bargaining even if the Northwestern players are successful.  Regardless, there could be substantial changes in the college football world if unionization of private university players becomes commonplace.