The movement for college athletic reform took a giant step forward Wednesday as a group of Northwestern football players won their case with the National Labor Relations Board in their effort to unionize.
The school will appeal the decision, which will be taken to the national offices of the NLRB in Washington, D.C. The group of players, led by former NU quarterback Kain Colter, filed the paperwork at the regional offices in Chicago.
A lawyer for the College Athletes Players Association, the group representing the players, termed it a "complete victory."
As a union, players would have the opportunity to negotiate for players' rights.
In its 24-page decision which you can view below, the NLRB said that current scholarship football players were found to be employees under the common law definition and therefore eligible to have an election to form a union.
Any election would be done by secret ballot. The decision in favor of the players is limited to Northwestern for now, but Robert McCormick, a professor emeritus at Michigan State told the Chicago Tribune that the decision could influence state and federal agencies under workers' compensation acts.
Perhaps more importantly, the decision said that scholarship players were not "primarily students" because of the amount of time devoted to football and that students athletic duties do not constitute a core element of their educational degree requirements. The decision also said that it was the school's "burden to justify denying its scholarship football players employee status" and that Northwestern "failed to carry its burden."
Northwestern contended that players are temporary employees and are not eligible for collective bargaining. After the decision, the school released a statement that said in part:
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student athletes."
In addition to appealing to the national offices, the statement also said that Northwestern would "explore all of its legal options in regard to this issue."
An appeal could take until the end of the year. The NCAA also expressed its disagreement with the ruling.
"Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules," part of the NCAA statement said. "While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college. We want student athletes – 99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues – focused on what matters most – finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”
As part of the filings in January, the players group was looking for full-cost of attendance scholarships, guaranteed scholarships in case of injury or other circumstance preventing a player from playing and incentives to help players complete their degrees.
When the players filed the petition, Ramogi Huma, the president of the CAPA, said an "overwhelming majority" of Northwestern players had signed union cards. For the petition to be considered, over 30 percent of players had to fill a card out.
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