Hopefully, you had an opportunity to enjoy some college football last year. If not, you might be out of luck, because if a new ruling from the National Labor Relations Board stands, the game will never be the same.
Yesterday, in a stunning decision, the Board held that, “all-grant-in-aid scholarship players for the [Northwestern University] football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are ‘employees’ under . . . the Act.”
So, how can student-athletes also be employees? The NLRB concluded the players “are not primarily students.” That conclusion came from the following findings:
- The players spent 50-60 hours a week on their “football duties” during the month-long training camp before the school year even started;
- The players spend an additional 40–50 hours a week during the 4–5 month football season;
- These hour commitments are “more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs”; and
- The time spent on football constituted “many more hours than the players spend on their studies.”
As a result of this ruling, the Northwestern University players, as well as athletes at other private universities who meet the above-noted criteria, can organize with a labor union. In fact, the Northwestern athletes have already joined the College Athletes Players Association.
In response to this decision, Northwestern University's president emeritus said that if the football players were successful forming a union, he could envision a number of private universities punting their programs.
"If we got into collective bargaining situations, I would not take for granted that the Northwesterns of the world would continue to play Division I sports," Henry Bienen said at the annual conference for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
Shortsighted and overly technical, the Board’s ruling will likely hurt the players its ostensibly trying to help—all the while adding new, dues-paying members to national labor organizations. Although Northwestern is going to appeal the Board’s ruling—a process that might take years—should this decision stand, the consequences could be dire.
If, for example, schools drop football programs, there will be fewer opportunities for student-athletes to attend a major university; more likely than not, these players will opt to skip the NCAA experience, and play football in Europe, Canada, or new “developmental” football leagues that will form should college programs be eliminated.
Rather than helping student-athletes earn their degrees while playing the game they love—and perhaps even earning a shot at a lucrative professional football career—the Board’s decision only ensures that fewer student-athletes will have an opportunity to earn a degree, which would prepare them for life after football.
But why allow a few inconvenient truths get in the way of this Hail Mary bomb to organized labor?