NLRB on College Athletics: Let’s Give them Something to Talk About

By: Jacqueline B. Jones

A National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) Decision, dated March 26, 2014, to allow a group of Northwestern University football athletes to  vote on whether or not they will be represented by a Union, the College  Athletes Players Association (“CAPA”), is being appealed with briefs due this summer.  In the meantime, the vote to unionize has occurred and the votes are impounded pending the results of the
appeal.

The Local Effect.
Not surprisingly, Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud announced in May the formation of a new Committee on Athletics. The Committee, to be chaired by Trustee Robert Miron, will ensure best practices in support of student-athletes, oversight, and compliance. Syracuse University’s new committee is likely poised to handle exactly the issues raised in the Northwestern Decision.

The Decision-Scholarship Players are Employees.
The NLRB Region 13 Decision found that Northwestern University was an employer of scholarship football players. An employment relationship was found because the football program generates so much revenue, the players are “paid” with scholarships and the football program controls the football players. Walk-on players did not meet the definition of an employee because they did not receive compensation in the form of a scholarship. Therefore, walk-ons did not participate in the unionization vote.

The Money.
The Decision cites that the scholarship football players perform valuable services for their employers and that the football program generated approximately $235 million during the 9-year period during 2003-2014. The Decision also noted the employer offers, via a “tender,” to pay for the player’s tuition fees, room, board and books for up to five years and that the monetary value of the scholarships is as much as $76,000/calendar year.

The Control.
Scholarship players are “under strict and exacting control by their employer throughout the entire year.” In the 6 week summer training camp, player itineraries are filled from 5:45 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. During the football season, players devote 40-50 hours per week on football related activities. Football coaches have significant control over their players and monitor their adherence to NCAA and team rules. At Northwestern, players are disciplined with additional study hall time if they are minutes late for football practice. Coaches have restrictions concerning the players’ living arrangements, outside employment, personal vehicles, traveling off-campus, internet postings, speaking to media, use of alcohol and drugs and engaging in gambling. The Decision also noted “the players are controlled to such a degree that it does impact their academic pursuits to a certain extent.” Sometimes scholarship players were unable to take courses conflicting with scheduled practices. Freshman players and sometimes upper-classman were required to attend study hall 6 hours per week and all the players have tutoring and advisory programs not available to regular students.

The Future.
This Decision will have an impact on college sports and it will likely result in some balancing of sports, academics and revenue for student athletes and colleges. Hopefully Syracuse University’s own football team will be trained and ready for the season kick-off August 29th against Villanova in the Carrier Dome – Go ‘Cuse.

 

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