Northwestern University football players are employees of the school and are therefore entitled to a union election, Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, said in a ruling released Wednesday afternoon.
Ohr's decision is expected to be appealed to the NLRB in Washington. Labor experts say an election is unlikely to take place until the NLRB makes a decision. If Ohr's decision is upheld, the case would likely make its way through federal appellate court and could reach the Supreme Court.
The decision is "revolutionary for college sports," said Robert McCormick, a professor emeritus at Michigan State University College of Law who focuses on sports and labor law.
McCormick said Ohr's decision could influence other state and federal agencies. For example, if college players demand compensation for injuries sustained during training or a game, Ohr's opinion could come into play in the question of whether the players are employees under the state Workers' Compensation Act.
Northwestern's football players are the first in college sports to seek union representation. Behind the effort is the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, a union funded by Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who has become an advocate for players' rights. CAPA is backed by the United Steelworkers, which is covering the group's legal expenses.
The public face of CAPA has been former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who appeared at NLRB hearings in February. Colter and CAPA said the players' services and responsibilities amounted to a full-time job, but even if that job were to be considered part time, they could still organize. Furthermore, the career of a college football player typically lasts four years, which is longer than the average NFL career, it argued.
At the hearings, Colter described a grueling football schedule that led him to drop his pre-med course load and switch to a less-demanding major.
Among its demands, CAPA is seeking financial coverage for former players with sports-related medical expenses, independent concussion experts to be placed on the sidelines during games and the creation of an educational trust fund to help former players graduate.
Alan Cubbage, Vice President for University Relations at Northwestern, said in a statement they were disappointed in the decision.
"While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it," the university said. "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."
Northwestern confirmed that it plans to appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. "We believe that participation in athletic events is part of the overall educational experience for those students, not a separate activity," NU said.http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-northwestern-union-bid-20140326,0,6454823.story