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NLRB supports Northwestern football players' move to unionize

A ruling by the NLRB in favor of Northwestern University and quarterback Kain Colter (pictured) allowing players to unionize could profoundly change the college sports landscape.
A ruling by the NLRB in favor of Northwestern University and quarterback Kain Colter (pictured) allowing players to unionize could profoundly change the college sports landscape.Northwestern University

The face of college athletics may well forever change after a decision issued yesterday by the National Labor Relations Board granted football players at Northwestern University. The NLRB ruling maintains that football players who receive full scholarships at Northwestern—a member of the Big Ten Conference—should be considered as employees of the university.

Northwestern argued that college athletes do not fit into the same category as steelworkers or truck drivers, and promised to appeal the decision.

Under the law, an employee is a person who “receives compensation for a service.” The NLRB ruled that an athletic scholarship—free education sometimes exceeding $100,000 in worth—is tantamount to employment.

The players must now vote on whether or not to authorize the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) to represent them in the collective bargaining process. The decision ultimately could lead to a football team going out on strike, and the ramifications of said decision are profound. Just consider college basketball players striking and canceling the Rose Bowl, or the players walking out on NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Kain Colter, the senior quarterback at Northwestern, was the central force among the players in creating CAPA. Legal fees for the players was provided by the United Steel Workers.

‘‘It is important that players have a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect their well-being,’’ said Colter, who is eligible for this year's NFL draft. He added that the vast majority of Northwestern's football scholarship athletes supported his bid to unionize.

Thursday's decision impacts private institutions only. Any attempt by student athletes at public universities would be governed laws in each individual state.

This most recent ruling represents one of a series of initiatives challenging the NCAA's regulations governing the amateur status of college athletes vis-a-vis the billions of dollars brought in from television broadcasts—primarily college football and basketball—as well as video games and merchandising. The athletes cannot receive any financial remuneration for their services without severe retribution. Several lawsuits have also been filed against the NCAA charging the organization with not doing enough to prevent the plethora of serious head injuries that affect the game of football today.

‘‘We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees,’’ said the NCAA in a statement following the NLRB's ruling.

March Madness,” which is currently in the “Sweet 16” stage, generates in excess of $1 billion annually in television revenue for the NCAA and its member schools.