The Chicago division of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., have the right to unionize, which would be a first in college athletics and could lead the way to athletes receiving compensation, among other benefits.
The government agency’s ruling, which said the players have the right to form a union because they fit the definition of “employees,” under federal law does not apply to public universities, but that doesn’t mean it did not catch the attention of leaders at Kansas University.
For now, it seems that KU officials are doing little more than monitoring the situation, because, at this time, the push from the Northwestern-based College Athletes Players Association is to unionize athletes at private schools because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities.
Still, the ruling carries substantial weight as the play-for-pay debate continues in the multi-billion-dollar college athletics industry.
“Any time something of this magnitude takes place, we watch it very closely,” KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger told the Journal-World on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s important to remember that issues like this are often multi-dimensional and anyone who says they have great knowledge about these recent events or attempts to predict the future would simply look foolish.”
According to an Associated Press report, an employee is generally regarded by law as someone who receives compensation for a service and is under the direct control of managers. Players in this case argued that their scholarships were compensation — handed out in return for athletic, not academic, performance — and the coaches were their managers.
Northwestern officials, however, argued that college athletes, as students, don’t fit in the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized workers.
Led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who helped establish CAPA, the union’s goals would include guaranteeing coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former players, exploring better procedures to reduce head injuries and even allowing players pursue commercial sponsorships.
When reached through a spokesperson, KU football coach Charlie Weis deferred his comments to the KU administration.
Demonstrating the reach of Wednesday’s news, KU swimming and diving coach Clark Campbell took to Twitter to offer his opinion that the ruling brings college athletics toward “dangerous territory.”
According to the AP report, Colter said nearly all of the 85 scholarship players on the Northwestern roster supported the push to unionize.
“It is important that players have a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect their well-being,” Colter said in a statement issued by CAPA after the ruling.
In their own statement, Northwestern officials expressed their disagreement with the ruling and said they planned to appeal to labor authorities in Washington, D.C.
“While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it,” the statement read. “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.”
In a written statement, the NCAA later backed this stance by saying, “We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.”