Scholarship football players at Northwestern are employees of the university and can unionize, at least as far as the National Labor Relations Board is concerned. Their ruling on the matter today is a potentially momentous decision that could have major ramifications for the future of the NCAA.
Northwestern football players "fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act's broad definition of 'employee' when one considers the common law definition of 'employee,'" the NLRB ruled on Wednesday [PDF]. Lawyers for the players argued that a scholarship was, essentially, a form of payment, with defined jobs, supervisors, and punishments for breaking rules. The ruling argues that the NCAA failed to provide the burden of proof necessary to deny scholarship football players their status as employees.
As result of the decision, Northwestern students are now allowed to vote on whether they would like to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association, the plaintiffs in the case.
The impetus for the case came last fall, when Northwestern quarterback Kane Colter announced his intention to unionize his teammates, so that they might collectively bargain with the university. A senior who has played his last game, Colter was the only player to come forward in support of the union, though he says all his teammates backed him. The NCAA has long insisted the student-athletes are students, not employees, and therefore cannot bargain for benefits.