Scholarship Athletes May be "Employees" Under National Labor Relations Act -- Northwestern University and College Athletic Players Association

The National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") protects the right of "employees" to organize and collectively bargain. In a petition to the National Labor Relations Board the College Athletes Players Association sought a determination that certain student athletes qualified as "employees" who were entitled to organize under the Act. The Board agreed.

The Board found that a "full ride" scholarship amounted to around $61,000 per year in consideration in the form of room, board, tuition, and various expense allowances. In return for this consideration, the scholarship recipient is subjected to a long list of duties, restrictions, and commitments of time and effort. The NLRA applies generally to individuals who meet the common law definition of "employment." This is essentially the same standard of coverage used in most state and federal protective employment legislation -- i.e. "a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other's control or right of control, and in return for payment."  The Board found that the scholarship relationship met this test.  

As the record demonstrates, players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer's control and are therefore employees within the meaning of the Act."

The effect of the Northwestern decision is that -- assuming players actually vote to unionize -- colleges will be required to collectively bargain with their players over the terms and conditions of their employment. This would be an odd bargaining relationship. For example, each team is "employed" by a separate college so there would presumably have to be separate bargaining units and elections for each college program. Moreover, given the NCAA's control over most aspects of scholarship and amateur eligibility status it is unclear what would be left to negotiate with the collegiate "employer."

Perhaps more significant in the long run is whether courts may import the same finding that scholarship-athletes are "employees" in the context of other worker protections such as the duty to pay minimum wage, overtime compensation, or to provide workers compensation coverage. However this particular decision plays out it is probably part of a long-run trend that will eventually overthrow the fiction that Division I college football and basketball are "amateur" student activities rather than the multi-billion dollar for-profit business that everyone knows they are.

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