Northwestern Ruling Of Student-Athletes As Employees One Step Down A Long Road

“The players are one giant step closer to justice”, said Ramogi Huma following the ruling by the National Labor Relations Board yesterday that the student-athletes of Northwestern University are in fact employees of the school.

If that’s the case, then the road to athletes actually being paid a salary for their employment—which tends the be the end game in this discussion—is a long one.

But the ruling yesterday was not simply about financial compensation.

The ruling allows the Northwestern football players to form a union, and thus to have a voice to collectively bargain with the university about issues that are far-reaching and go far beyond payment beyond tuition and room and board.

While yesterday’s news currently only affects Northwestern, it is certain to spur copycat suits that could eventually reach a national level.

So what do they actually stand to gain in the immediate future, assuming the university’s appeal is ultimately denied and the ruling stands?

As mentioned, it gives them a voice, a seat at the table regarding decisions that are likely to affect their health and wellbeing.

Leo W. Gerard, the president of United Steelworkers (who helped bring the case to the board), had the following to say: “the key issue at Northwestern is negotiating better protections against concussions and improving medical coverage following graduation”.

Protection against the long-term effects of concussions and other significant injuries is obviously of great concern, but so are other standard interests that are commonplace within the professional ranks, including limiting exposure to hits during practice, as well as the number and duration of practices.

Unsurprisingly, all levels of college authority came out in opposition to the ruling, adamantly continuing to defend the notion of the student-athlete, which, in Huma’s words, the NCAA “invented…to prevent the exact ruling that was made” yesterday.

Said NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy:

Over the last three years, our member colleges and universities have worked to re-evaluate the current rules. While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college. We want student athletes—99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues—focused on what matters most—finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.

Regardless of where one ultimately stands on the issue, I believe that Remy’s inclusion of the professional prospects of the average student-athlete is both telling and worrying. It insinuates that the ability for an athlete to succeed in the sport professionally is in some way tied to his rights as an employee, or ‘student-athlete’, for the university.

But this is something that everybody already knows the NCAA believes. As former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter testified during the hearing when asked why the university provided him a scholarship, the reason is “to play football. To perform an athletic service”.

For the NCAA to even consider going down this road—of making the argument that athletic success is correlative to how valuable a scholarship is—would be foolhardy, as it only serves to strengthen the notion that the student-athlete is an employee, subject to dismissal relative to job performance.

Yesterday’s ruling may well be a “giant step” for player advocacy, in that it represents a turning of the tides in favor of student-athlete rights. But it is still one step in what could be a very long and litigious process when all is written.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Tom

    I am not well enough versed in this subject to make arguments either way. However, I have to wonder if the end results will include more significant unintended negatives than positives for the athletes involved? Much like title IX did. For example, will some colleges simply start closing down their athletic programs?
    Also, will these “employees” start being taxed on the value of their scholarships?
    Seems like a real murky subject that could change NCAA athletics in ways that the plaintiffs did not anticipate.

  • RW

    Couldn’t agree more. The payment for most student-athletes is their scholarship. The rest of us come out with $100,000+ in debt. Plus, like you said, a good deal of schools would be forced to shut down their athletic departments because of this.

    On the flip side, many (if not most) of the student-athletes being signed at major schools are fairly poor, and can’t afford many of the typical things they see their peers getting. But, no excuse in my mind. Perhaps a small stipend would be appropriate, but that’s it.

  • Chad H

    And this is another reason why America is failing. So is there going to be a union for Babe Ruth baseball? Nothing but insanity in the world of academia.

  • RW

    I don’t think academia likes the ruling… I’m pretty sure they like their current situation (i.e. making money off of the players that play for them without paying them full salaries + benefits + retirement packages). Nevertheless, the only positive of this union is for player to be heard concerning their health, etc. Otherwise this is a little silly.

  • Chad H

    I agree and hope the schools fight back. Players don’t need a union for health reasons. They aren’t the experts anyways leave it to the health professionals to figure it out. If all this passes there will be an expansion of rights. So a player can get drunk, high, smack the crap out of their girlfriend and the union will fight for them to stay in school and on the team.

  • Jeff

    The “unintended negatives” are my main concern as well. I think paying college athletes further encourages younger kids and even their parents to put all of their eggs in one basket and go the “professional sports” route, even more so than now. It’s just silly to me..

  • Jeff

    Why not just make academics and sports separate then? Or at least if you’re going to pay these “student”-athletes, hold them to the same standard as the actual students who pay actual money for an actual education.

  • OIF3gunner

    Because apparently that’s all unions do, right?

  • Steve

    NCAA schools make ton of money from the football programs. A lot of this money go to other programs in the school and funds them. They should have to take care of students that get hurt playing football at their school. The regents make tons of money at these colleges. Colleges may have to tighten their belts and watch where they spend money. Think it is time for a change and with this it may be coming. People in general don’t like change and are reluctant to it, sometimes change is for the good and we shall see how this proceeds.

  • 243546

    Great question. This ruling won’t be limited to just the football program. The ruling mentions the football program specifically, but the reasoning to support that scholarship football players are in fact employees of the university would also apply to every other sports program. Title 9 isn’t the only potential issue here. What about universities that are located in open shop states, where union membership is a requirement for employment? This could lead to athletes from other sports being required to join the union. A potential counter by the universities could lead to the elimination of sports scholarships for low revenue producing sports.

  • 243546

    The NLRB ruling states that the value of the athletic scholarship is $61,000/year. Now that the scholarship is now considered compensation for employment, where are these kids going to get the money to pay the income tax on a $61,000 tax bill?

  • j m

    If a mediocrity like Kain Colter can unionize his teammates, what would prevent a full scholarship 4.0 student-genius in the Physics Department from unionizing his fellow academic scholarship winner-teammates? And if they can unionize, why can’t the schlubs who actually pay from their own pocket for tuition, books, room and board?

  • Jason

    It’s such a tough argument either way. I heard on my local ESPN affiliate that the AD at Ohio State received an $18,000 bonus because a wrestler (that he likely never met) won the national tiltle in his weight class.

  • Chad H

    Nope and that’s not what was stated. I said there will be an expansion of those union rights. This is a foot in the door. I’m a union member and I see our union rights posted where they will fight for our jobs in the case of drug use even when we have drug testing and secret security clearances. I’m sorry this is a part of the unions I disagree with. Sorry, IMO unions don’t belong in these areas.
    For an Iraqi Freedom gunner I would hope you could agree with that.

  • Paddy

    Wait til the IRS sends a tax bill for the 200,000 scholarship

  • treeher

    Division I scholarships are all or nothing, and that then includes Tuition, University Fees, Required Textbooks, Room and Board. But it’s not just the scholarship. Also payment received for public appearances and autograph signings. Value of benefits/insurance. Compensation for commercials and product endorsements. Basically, the whole boat that a professional experiences.

  • Virdin Barzey

    I’m not for Unions since that is rarely ever the solution but the fact is that there has been tons of unintended negatives going on with the way the NCAA currently operates. Many of us either are ignorant to those facts or turn a blind eye aka don’t care.

    There are always ways to address problems in a civil and common sense approach. The real problem is that some on either side of the aisle don’t want to do what’s best for all, its either their way or the highway. The goal isn’t to come up with crazy solutions willy-nilly like some are suggesting but to realize that there is a problem that shouldn’t be ignored.

    Those are two sides that many believe we have to choose from and I highly disagree. We have so called highly intelligent people in our Universities and they can’t come up with something that is beneficial for most if not all? I call it laziness versus greediness. If those are the starting points then yes, the consequences will be great.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    If student athletes start getting paid it will affect the sports programs in a very negative way. College football pays for many other college sports programs that lose money every year. Once you have to pay all of these athletes no question that many money losing sports programs will be thrown in the garbage and so people who may not have been able to afford to go to a university could…well that is out the window. These labor unions are only out for money and could careless who they hurt.

  • Kareem Daniels

    Scholarships are one year scholarships. They are renewed every year. Football and basketball players earn their scholarships. If you look at how much money teams bring in from attendance alone these players more than pay for themselves. That’s not counting concessions, jersey sells, TV or commercial rights. Do some simple math and you will see that.

  • Hard Row

    Most schools lose money or come close to break even on their sports programs. Football is the only school that turns a profit for most schools and it’s not even a profit for many.

    For every Penn State that has 100k attendance, huge alumni base that buys merchandise, Big Ten Network money, etc. there are 10 teams like Indiana or Wake Forest that barely scrape by or have a loss on sports.

    Don’t forget that you can’t just pay the football players who are good. You have to pay everybody from the star QB to the 3rd string lacrosse player.

    Maybe Johnny Manziel earned Texas A&M some money but how much did the backup Guard who may never start earn? How much does a women’s field hockey player make a university?

    Maybe the stars do “earn” but do the math on the other 500 or so male and female athletes walking around campus and you will see that most colleges are not making a bunch of money. Many are losing money on sports.

  • Kareem Daniels

    The ruling doesn’t apply to all sports. At this point, it’s only football and basketball, revenue generating sports. How much money is the AD or the coach getting from those schools? I don’t the players are trying to be greedy. They shouldn’t get left on their own if they get injured playing for a university.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Actually I believe this ruling *is* limited to just the football program. Further legal action would need to be taken to take it beyond that scope.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Actually this specific ruling only pertains to the Northwestern football program, not even basketball.

  • 243546

    The ruling is specific to the football program, because the case was brought by the football program. If you read the actual ruling, the rationale for allowing the football players (on scholarship) to unionize, is because they meet the definition of “employee”. They are considered employees, because they receive compensation for services provided to the university.

  • OIF3gunner

    I am also union. It looked to me that you made a generalized statement. I think you are just looking at it from the worst possible outlook. I understand where you’re coming from but, I don’t agree 100%. There are sometimes false positives and/or prescription drugs. 90% of the time I agree. I’m just glad to know if something weird happened, I had help to fight.

  • OIF3gunner

    Wait a minute, It just sank in secret clearances! Yeah, no dope around that type of stuff!

  • Farnsworth

    Scholarships are considered grants I believe. Grants aren’t taxed. Could be wrong though.

  • Farnsworth

    Ever had a union job? I work for a railroad, I’ll defend my union job with my life. Heaven forbid I make a great wage as opposed to the stock holders being happy. My wife works for the same railroad, 65k for a secretary isn’t bad. Vote union. You’ll make more money, have great benefits, and a voice at the table.

  • Farnsworth

    Scholarships are grants. Believe tax exempt. Would need to Chavez tax laws, which is very possible.

  • Hard Row

    For now it’s football, but logic says is any other team wants to unionize, they can as well. This ruling only applies to private schools, not public schools. Most are public schools, so in the short run this ruling will have little impact but in the future it can grow.

    What does the coach or AD getting paid have to do with players? That is an illogical argument I’ve heard several times and it makes no sense. By that logic then high school athletes should get paid too because their coach gets paid. What about passengers on an airplane? The pilot is getting paid and he wouldn’t have his job if not for the passenger, so should the passenger get paid for each flight?

    If the point of this is to form some sort of athletes rights group that assures they are fairly treated then that’s fine. I know there are schools that screw kids over. The SEC built themselves on oversigning, which means that they sign more kids than they have scholarships, then they wait and see which kids are the best, give them the scholarship and pull the scholarship from some other player who did nothing wrong other than just not being an NFL caliber player.

    I believe scholarships should be 4 years and can’t be taken away without good reason like breaking the law or failing classes.

    Players do have legit grievances on issues like that. But they do not have a grievance about not being paid. They do get paid plenty. A scholarship for 4 years is over 100k most places. They also get professional coaching and TV exposure to help them get drafted. They do get so called walking around money too.

    If that deal is not acceptable then try playing football in Canada or some semi pro league.

  • Chad H

    Bottom line students are students not employees. There should be fear by the schools and their athletic depts if this holds up. This is a foot in the door and union reps will fight for the player that violates team and school conduct policies.
    I mean what’s next are prison inmates employees of the state? Should they be unionized? Common sense has to prevail.

  • 243546

    Not when it’s consider compensation from an employer. The Supreme Court ruled on this back in the 1960’s.

  • Kareem Daniels

    Your argument makes no sense. No one pays to see you fly on an airplane. The AD and coach salaries are directly related to the players on the field. And again, they generate the money to cover their scholarships