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NLRB Ruling Opens Door to College Athletes Unionizing

nlrbIn a recent ruling that may have far-flung repercussions which settle on college gridirons across the nation, the National Labor Relations Board, NLRB, ruled that Northwestern University football players who get certain scholarships have the right to unionize. The ruling, which means that the college’s football players should be considered employees has received national attention. Some of the more important aspects have been ignored by the media.

College Football is Profitable

The ruling looked at the ledger sheet for Northwestern University and released its findings on the cost structure of the sports program. While many observers have felt that a football program, like that at Northwestern, may be money-losers, the football program actually created revenue for the school to the tune of $30.1 million. With expenses coming in at $21.7 million, the school made a cool profit of $8.5 million off of the football program.All of the previous claims that allowing the team to unionize would force the school to shut the program down, flailed in the face of basic finances. Closing the football program would hit the school with too much lost revenue.

Football Players Make Significant Time Commitment

The NLRB made plain that football at Northwestern is not a leisure time activity, but more like a job. In the ruling, on page 6, the NLRB points out that the players spend 45-50 hours each week on activities related to football, including travel time for games. The ruling points out that players are required to skip class on Friday’s to travel for away games, creating a problem for any attempts to register for classes.

College Maintains Control of Players

Many collegiate football fans don’t understand the level of “big brother” treatment which some colleges exercise over their players. Even when football is not in season, players at Northwestern have very few personal freedoms. First and second year students are required to reside on campus while upperclassman have to submit their lease to the coaching staff for approval prior to moving into off-campus housing.All Northwestern players must give information about the car they drive and are limited on what they can say on their personal social media accounts.

Sports Over Scholastics

Another disturbing aspect of the NLRB decision is its revelation of how athletics and academics impact each other. While the NCAA enjoys promoting the myth of the student-athlete, players at Northwestern are discouraged from pursuing the more rigorous academic regimen. Kain Colter, Northwestern quarterback said that his coaches suggested he forgo taking a pre-med course one semester because it would interfere with morning practices.

Northwestern University Engages in Interstate Commerce

One of the most ignored legal conclusions from the ruling is the finding that the college’s football program engages actively in interstate commerce. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has long maintained the position that it is immune from antitrust scrutiny because it does not participate in commerce, and court decisions in two federal circuits have seemed to agree. The NLRB rejected that argument in its ruling.

Employer (Northwestern University) Sells Merchandise

Jerseys with a player’s name and number, bobble head dolls based on player’s likenesses and other memorabilia are sold at home and away games. This is relevant to the variety of antitrust cases currently filed against the NCAA. One of the more prominent cases being heard is the litigation where the NCAA has denied the sale of team jerseys with player’s numbers represent actual likenesses.

With much more discussion, and possibly courtroom time, to come, the NLRB ruling may not be the last word. But what it said in releasing its finding, does suggest that people pay attention. Especially colleges.

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