NLRB Regional Office Rules College Players May Unionize

The Chicago Regional Office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that 85 Northwestern University football players who are receiving scholarships are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This ruling could have broad implications for private university athletic programs, as it could permit certain students to form unions and bargain over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. Public employers, including public universities, are not affected, as they are not subject to the NLRA. 

For the last 50 years, college athletes at private universities were not considered employees. As such, they were not covered by the NLRA. However, the NLRB Regional Office ruled that the scholarship players were employees for several reasons. First, they spent more time on football activities than academic ones. Second, they received compensation in the form of scholarships conditioned on participation in the football program, including “voluntary” off-season workouts. Third, the university received revenue for the work of the football players, including “ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales, and licensing agreements.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association released a statement after the decision stating that they were “disappointed” and that they “strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees.” The case is being appealed to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. Regardless, a vote to unionize is scheduled for April 25. MSEC will keep members updated on this case as it winds through the legal system.