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NLRB decision could change the landscape of college sports

The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Northwestern University’s football players are considered employees, instead of the traditional distinction “student athletes.” The ruling essentially paves the way, at least for now, for the football team to determine if it wants to unionize.

In what is arguably a defining moment in college sports, the action did not take place on the football field, on a basketball court or a swimming pool. The director, Peter Sung Orr, explained in his order that a substantial part of his decision hinged upon the enormous financial success the school enjoyed at the expense of the players. Essentially, the school generated more than $230 million over the period between 2003 and 2012, in addition to the positive reputation the school gained from having a successful football team. 

Orr also cited the immense measure of control the coaching staff had over the players, including their workout regimens, living arrangements, dress codes and use of social media. He concluded that this measure of control was akin to that of an employer over an employee, not a school over a student.

The decision is a watershed moment because of what other rights may come about for athletes who may later be considered employees. For instance, they may be able to seek damages in wrongful termination suits, wage and hour violation claims or even discrimination suits. Indeed, the possibility of these cases coming to fruition may not be realized for some time, but it has set the wheels in motion for change in college athletics.

Source: ABC “NLRB decision very well-reasoned,” Lester Munson, Mar. 27, 2014

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