Wyatt Employment Law Report

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Crossroads in College Sports: Northwestern University Football Players’ Attempt to Unionize Could be a Real “Game Changer”

By R. Joseph Stennis

Are student-athletes employees of a university or instead just amateur athletes who play sports for their schools?  This is the question put forth by a  group of current Northwestern University football players who recently announced via representatives their intent to unionize and be recognized as employees under federal labor law.  On January 28, 2014, Ramogi Huma, president of the college athlete advocacy group National College Players Association, filed a petition with the Chicago Regional Office of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) on behalf of the players requesting to be certified as a union.  If certified by the NLRB, the group of players would be called the College Athletes Players Association (“CAPA”).  CAPA was organized by former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter, former University of Massachusetts basketball player Luke Bonner, and Mr. Huma.  CAPA was created with the support from the United Steelworkers Union as well.

The response of the NCAA, Northwestern University and Big Ten Conference was essentially that student-athletes are not employees of the university.  In particular, the NCAA’s chief legal officer Donald Remy stated, “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college:  an education.  Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act.  We are confident the [NLRB] will find…there is no right to organize student-athletes.”

The NLRB’s Chicago Regional Office is expected to hold a hearing on this matter on February 7, 2014.  If the NLRB’s Regional Director finds that the athletes are employees as defined in the National Labor Relations Act, he will order a secret ballet election.  If he makes a finding that the athletes are not employees, he will dismiss the petition.  The Regional Director’s decision—either way—will likely be appealed.