Thursday, March 27, 2014

NLRB Rules That College Football Players Are Employees And May Unionize

Yesterday, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB”) ruled that football players at Northwestern University qualify as employees of the university and can unionize.  Certainly, one can extrapolate from the ruling that it applies to all student athletes, not just football players at Northwestern. 

While the players may be rejoicing over their new-found status, they should approach this development with some trepidation.  There are a number of unknown or unintended consequences that could occur as a result of the NLRB ruling.  Colleges and universities may elect to no longer issue scholarships for their athletes, and could avoid allegations of anti-union animus if financial considerations come into play. Indeed, if sports scholarships are discontinued, that will likely affect a great number of individuals who might not otherwise be able to afford an education, but for those  scholarships. If scholarships continue, student recipients could be taxed on all or portions of those scholarships as employee income. Small schools may decide to cancel their sports programs completely. Student athletes who are hurt in a game or in activities related to their participation in the sport may qualify for workers’ compensation benefits. 

Also, unionization raises the prospect of strikes by disgruntled players and lockouts by athletic departments. Strikes and lockouts are particularly likely since the athletes may lack any real leverage at the bargaining table; this could result in the utilization of non-union replacement players.    
The NLRB ruling applies solely to athletes at private schools because the NLRB lacks jurisdiction over public universities.  I expect that Northwestern will appeal and that the matter will be decided ultimately by the United States Supreme Court.  In the interim, due to potential litigation, it is likely that the matter won’t be finalized for years. Stay tuned. 

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