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The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago, Peter Sung Ohr, ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University football players are university employees and entitled to an election that will determine whether they can form a union. The blockbuster ruling and Ohr's reasoning raise significant legal questions:
Q: What is the basis that college athletes are employees and entitled to form a union?
A: Ohr based his conclusion primarily on the enormous revenue and benefit that result from the efforts of the Northwestern football players and on the rigorous control that Wildcats coaches have over the lives of the scholarship athletes. The first thing that Ohr mentioned as he began to explain his decision was that Northwestern enjoyed football revenue of $235 million over the nine years between 2003 and 2012. Clearly impressed with that enormous income, Ohr explained somewhat unnecessarily that the university could use this "economic benefit" in "any manner it chose." It wasn't just the money, though, Ohr added. There is also the "great benefit" of the "immeasurable positive impact to Northwestern's reputation a winning football team may have." (Ohr did not mention NU's seven-game losing streak at the end of the past season.)
Ohr also was impressed with the hour-by-hour, day-by-day control that the coaching staff has over players' lives. He devoted more than 10 pages of his 24-page opinion to a detailed description of practice schedules, workout requirements and coaches' supervision, including approval of living arrangements, registration of automobiles, control of the use of social media (a player must be connected to a coach), dress codes, restrictions on off-campus travel and demanding study schedules. It was the kind of control, Ohr concluded, that an employer has over an employee, not the kind of control a school has over a student.
Q: What is the significance of Ohr's ruling?
A: The decision is highly significant. Although it will be reviewed and appealed, it is a historic first step in a process that, together with litigation against the NCAA and legislation in Congress, could change the face of college sports. If the decision is upheld, it will give players at private universities a voice in the management of their lives as athletes and students. It will qualify players for workers' compensation benefits for injuries that occur during their playing careers, benefits that will cover them well into their futures. Instead of coaches issuing schedules and setting rules for their private lives, the players and their union will bargain for their working conditions in the same way NFL and MLB players bargain for benefits. And, although the Northwestern players say they are not interested in payments for their efforts, the formation of a players' union will open the way to salaries for athletes in football and men's basketball.