On March 26, Peter Ohr, Regional Director of National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) Region 13 held that Northwestern University’s football players are in fact school employees and have the right to form a labor union.
One common misconception by the public is that unionization will mean the players will start to receive a paid salary. Not so. Presently, the CAPA is not asking for “student”-athletes to be paid. Much of what the CAPA desires is generic protections for the athletes, such as guaranteed scholarships and post-eligibility health costs. Currently, all athletes are on 1-year scholarships, which—if they get hurt during play and must miss the next season due to injury—the school could conceivably not offer in future years. The CAPA is also pushing for the creation of a trust fund that would assist former players finish their degrees. At this point, the CAPA is actually not asking for anything against present NCAA rules.
In Northwestern’s defense (and other schools that might be subject to unionizing athletes later), the school, like most others, uses the profits from revenue-generating sports to support all other sports at the school. Northwestern’s understandable concern is that those profits would have to be used to cover the expenses of additional benefits negotiated with the unionized football players. Without such profits, schools may not have the capability to afford non-revenue-generating sports. Such an argument makes sense, and many may support other sports getting part of the pot so athletes of all kinds can have access to the rewards athletic scholarships offer.
However, it is also true that those same athletes are responsible for coaches and administrators’ bonuses based on their success on the field or court. For example, Aaron Harrison, the University of Kentucky’s star freshman, made the shot of his life in Sunday’s Elite Eight game, sending Kentucky to the Final Four. That shot made $329,168 for Kentucky’s coaches and athletics director.
One could argue that without the staff, Hernandez may not have been in the position to win the game, or Kentucky may not have been in that game in the first place. However, the example demonstrates the difficulty that faces the NLRB and the future of college sports.
If actual salaries are actually not part of what the CAPA is attempting to negotiate on behalf of future potential union members, Northwestern should consider dropping its appeal. The men who play basketball and football dedicate a majority of their time to playing their sport. They devote roughly 40-50 hours per week to sports-related activities. Northwestern could do a lot for its athletic department by standing by its athletes and working with them to meet their needs.
 Northwestern University, 13-RC-121359, National Labor Relations Board, Region 13 (Chicago).