What a College Football Players Union Could Mean for the NCAA

A group of Northwestern football players is fed up with how the NCAA treats players and is looking to start a college athlete union.

Jan 30, 2014 at 1:19PM

If a group of Northwestern football players has its way, today's student athlete will become tomorrow's unionized worker.

ESPN's "Outside the Lines" reported that Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, has filed a petition on behalf of a group of Northwestern players seeking to have them recognized as employees. A number of Northwestern players have, according to SI.com, signed union cards with the National Labor Relations Board.

The NCAA was immediately scornful of the idea and released a statement from its Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy condemning it.

This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize. Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes. Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.

How much money are we talking about?

According to ESPN, Big Ten football schools, which include Northwestern, received $25.7 million from the league, the vast majority of which came from TV rights. That includes money from the Big Ten Network, which is owned by the conference with Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) holding a minority interest, as well as payments from Disney's (NYSE:DIS) ABC/ESPN, which televises certain games. Currently, playing in a BCS game brings a conference another $23.6 million, and that number should rise significantly when the playoff system goes into effect next season. Forbes reports that ESPN is expected to pay around $500 million for that.

Is a union even possible?

According to Oriana Vigliotti, a New York-based attorney who represents labor unions, it's possible, but not certain, that the NLRB will determine, after a representation hearing, that the petitioned-for unit of Northwestern scholarship football players is an acceptable unit of employees. To determine that, she explained, the NLRB will consider whether the scholarship players are "employees" under the National Labor Relations Act.

"This is an open question," Vigliotti said. "There is a line of cases stemming from graduate student assistants that determines whether graduate student assistants are employees under the NLRA and thus eligible to vote in a union representation election based on whether the graduate student assistants' main duties are in furtherance of the economic interests of their universities as opposed to being in furtherance of their studies. It follows from this line of cases that the Northwestern football players' main duties are in furtherance of the economic interests of Northwestern and the NCAA, and not solely in furtherance of their studies."  

Will players have to be paid?

Winning union recognition would mean that scholarship athletes are considered "employees" under the NLRA, explained Vigliotti. It does not, however, mean that they will be considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is the federal law that governs the federal minimum wage (which is the floor for the state minimum wages). Under the FLSA, an individual is considered an employee if their employer "suffers or permits" them to work. Suffer or permit to work means that if an employer requires or allows employees to work, the time spent is generally hours worked. This is not necessarily the same definition of "employee" under the NLRA, so the payment question is not directly related to unionization. 

Though it would be a massive change, Vigliotti does not believe that if the players form a union, it will necessarily undermine the sport. "I graduated from the University of Michigan and I'm a huge Michigan football fan," she said. "It's my opinion that the unionization of the Northwestern football players -- or any college sports team -- would serve to improve college sports and to improve graduation rates because the 'student athletes' wouldn't be so desperate to abandon their education for professional sports in order to support themselves and their families."

How would it help?

One example of how a union could protect players, Vigliotti explained, would be by negotiating health insurance or compensation to enable players deal with the long-term effects of their injuries.

"The arguments against the unionization of the Northwestern football players are reminiscent of the arguments made against Title IX, which provided for adequate funding for women's college sports," she said  "Far from 'undermining' college sports, Title IX served to expand and enrich college sports." 

What happens next?

According to ESPN, if the union is certified by the NLRB, it will be called the College Athletes Players Association. The group will have technical support from the United Steelworkers, which will not receive union dues from players. The process, however, ESPN reported, could take years to resolve, so, no immediate changes are expected.

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