NLRB: College Football Athletes at Private Universities Can Form Unions

Charles W. Miller & Associates

A recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) could dramatically alter the current college football system in Kentucky, Indiana, and across the United States. Among other things, it might pave the way for athletes in college programs to be paid. The NLRB ruled in favor of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), finding that college football players are employees rather than student-athletes, and have the right to form a union. At present, this right belongs only to athletes at private colleges, whereas athletes at public institutions would need to petition their state’s labor board. Northwestern, the university that lost the case, has vowed to appeal the NLRB’s ruling.

The case began in February when college football players at Northwestern petitioned their coaches and university to form a union. When the petition was refused, one of the athletes, Kain Colter, took the lead in seeking a legal appeal, aided by the United Steelworkers. They filed their case with the local Chicago NLRB, explaining that while college football players were treated as “student-athletes,” their labor and the profits they brought to their schools made them more akin to employees. Northwestern alone enjoyed revenues from its football program in the amount of $235 million between 2003 and 2012.

The NLRB ruling found that in order to achieve such revenues, the Northwestern coaching staff had strict control over the athletes’ lives. The players had specific workout regimens, and they needed prior coach approval for their living situations, car registration, use of social media, dress codes, types of off-campus travel, and study schedules. The NLRB concluded that such control was the type that an employer had over an employee, not a school over a student.

Before the ruling, the role of a college football athlete was already the subject of much debate. While Major League Baseball has a minor league system that pays players, the collegiate football system has served as a minor league National Football League system for years. Yet while many college football players get full scholarships, not everyone does. And even when they do, athletes claim that it does not come close to compensating them for what they give to their schools revenue-wise. Colleges have even permitted the athletes’ likeness to be used in media without the athletes’ permission or compensation.

Should the NLRB’s ruling be upheld, athletes at private colleges and universities would not only have a voice in the management of their lives as both athletes and students, but they would also qualify for other benefits, like workers compensation. A union of college athletes could also bargain for working conditions rather than have them imposed upon them by their coaches. Finally, a players union could open the way for athletes in college football and basketball to finally earn a salary.

Though Northwestern will appeal, it might have a difficult time finding a precedent for overturning the NLRB’s ruling. And while public universities are not directly affected, athletes there will no doubt look at the private athletes’ example in advocating for their own unions.

Charles W. Miller & Associates is an Indiana and Kentucky plaintiffs law firm serving residents of Kentucky and Indiana. Located in Louisville, Kentucky, the firm provides representation in the areas of personal injury and employment law. If you need an Indiana or Kentucky labor law attorney, contact us today for a free consultation.

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