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Northwestern University Men's Football Team Files For Union Designation From NLRB

By Mike Furlano

On January 28th, the Northwestern University Men's NCAA Division One Football team filed a petition with its local National Labor Relations Board seeking union status. The proposed union, named the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), argues that the Northwestern football players are more like "employees" than "student-athletes," and should be treated as such. The NCAA publicly opposed the players' unionization attempts, stating that "student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and that there is no existing relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions, or student-athletes."

According to the CAPA President Ramogi Huma, the proposed union's main goal is to give college athletes a voice "when it comes to their physical, academic, and financial protections." The union is initially concerned with medical treatment and tuition after a player stops playing his or her sport. Currently the CAPA is only representing Division One Football Bowl Subdivision players and men's basketball players.

The main challenge for the CAPA is reversing 50 years of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) precedent refusing to consider student-athletes as employees -- mostly for worker compensation issues. Since 1953 when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a University of Denver football player was an "employee" for purposes of Colorado's workers compensation laws, the NCAA has diligently worked to separate athletes from employees. The NCAA thereafter started using the term "student-athletes," calling scholarships "grant-in-aid," and enacting other procedures to further the distinction between athletes and employees.

Two notable decisions that may guide the NLRB involve graduate teaching assistants. In 2004, the NLRB concluded that graduate teaching assistants could not unionize because the assistants' relationship with Brown University (Brown) was more educational than economical. In 2011, however, the NLRB cast doubt on its earlier ruling when it considered a New York University (NYU) graduate assistants' union petition. While the Regional Board ultimately rejected the petition, it noted that the 2004 Brown decision was ripe for reconsideration because the graduate assistants' relationship with the school was both educational and economic. Indeed, in 2012 the National Board voted to reconsider the Brown decision. The Board did not get a chance, though, because NYU and its graduate assistants came to an agreement and withdrew the petition. The CAPA would likely rely on these recent developments to establish that the student-athletes are employees under the NLRA.

A ruling in the CAPA's favor would apply to all private universities across the United States. Public universities, however, are not bound by NLRB rulings because the NLRA does not apply to public entities. Instead, public universities are bound by state labor laws. This is problematic for the union movement because many states have "right-to-work" laws that limit unionization by public employees.

Unionizing college athletes can have widespread effect on the collegiate sports landscape. A successful petition could affect everything from NCAA antitrust violation claims to individual universities' tax-exempt status. Even if the petition is initially denied, the final matter will take years to play out in administrative hearings and the courts.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 3, 2014 4:49 PM.

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