WASHINGTON – Northwestern University on Thursday urged the National Labor Relations Board to overturn a regional ruling that would allow its scholarship football players to unionize, holding up the football program as exemplifying the university’s integration of athletics and education.
In a 60-page brief filed with the labor board in Washington just hours ahead of a midnight deadline, the university laid out its opposition to student athletes forming a union and asked to argue its case before the board.
The regional director’s decision “transforms what has always been a cooperative educational relationship between university and student into an adversarial employer-employee relationship,” the Evanston, Illinois university said in the brief.
Northwestern’s brief was one of several filed Thursday by organizations on both sides of a March 26 ruling by a regional director of the labor board that could revolutionize college sports. The director ruled that football players who receive full scholarships to the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can unionize.
An employee is regarded by law as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers.
In the case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers and scholarships are a form of compensation, the regional court determined.
An organization of college presidents filed a friend-of-the-court brief taking strong issue with the regional director’s ruling.
“Student-athletes participate for their own benefit; they do not render services for compensation,” said the 1,800 member American Council on Education. They “are not employees and therefore not subject to the National Labor Relations Act.”
The full labor board is weighing the case but has no deadline for a ruling.
In its own brief, the fledgling College Athletes Players Association argued that Northwestern football is a commercial enterprise from which the university derives substantial financial benefits. “They are entitled to representation … the regional director’s decision should be affirmed,” the union said.
At its core, the players’ union said, “this case involves the same questions that arise in every representation case: Do the players perform services for the university? Do they work under the university’s supervision and direction? Do they receive compensation for their work?”
Answering in the affirmative, the players’ union said that under federal law, the players are entitled to vote on whether to unionize “and to pursue a collective voice to address their working conditions.”
The Northwestern college athletes on scholarship did hold an election in the spring. However, the ballot box was sealed pending a final NLRB decision.