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In a case with widespread implications, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that Northwestern University football players are employees of the university and should be allowed to decide whether they want to unionize.
Officials of Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern reacted swiftly, saying the university plans to appeal.
The College Athletes Players Association, which is working to organize Northwestern players, argued that 85 football players receiving “grant-in-aid scholarships'' from Northwestern should be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act, according to the NLRB's decision posted online.
The NLRB ruling directs Northwestern's scholarship football players to hold a secret ballot election to determine whether they will be represented under the College Athletes Players Association.
Northwestern had argued to the NLRB that players are temporary employees who are not eligible for collective bargaining.
NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr in Chicago wrote in the ruling that Northwestern failed to justify denying employee status to scholarship football players. The ruling noted that Northwestern has “strict and exacting control'' over the athletic performance of scholarship players, and that players' services are performed for the financial benefit of the university.
“Clearly, the Employer's players perform valuable services for their Employer,” the ruling states. “Monetarily, the Employer's football program generated revenues of approximately $235 million during the nine year period 2003-2012 through its participation in the NCAA Division I and Big Ten Conference that were generated through ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales and licensing agreements.''
The NLRB ruling also found that Northwestern scholarship football players could not be considered “primarily students'' because they spend 40 to 50 hours per week performing football-related duties.
“Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies,'' according to the ruling. “In fact, the players do not attend academic classes while in training camp or the first few weeks of the regular season.''
Mr. Ohr found that Northwestern's walk-on football players do not qualify as employees because they do not receive compensation for their services.
Northwestern said in a statement Wednesday that it plans to appeal the NLRB decision.
“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director's opinion, we disagree with it,'' the university said in the statement. “Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.''
Experts say the Northwestern case potentially could lead to players filing workers compensation claims for on-field injuries.