The Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Wednesday that Northwestern football players qualify as employees and can unionize, ESPN reports.
“I find that all grant-in-aid scholarship players for the Employer’s football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are ‘employees’ under the [National Labor Relations] Act,” Peter Sung Ohr, Chicago’s NLRB regional director, stated in his decision.
Ohr cited the inherent connection between player’s time commitment, on-field performance and how the universities designate scholarships as reasons for granting the athletes union rights.
The board’s ruling gives the Northwestern athletes the ability to hold an election on whether to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).
On Jan. 28, Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, brought the case to the NLRB along with former Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter and the United Steelworkers Union.
“It’s become clear that relying on NCAA policymakers won’t work, that they are never going to protect college athletes, and you can see that with their actions over the past decade. Look at their position on concussions,” Huma told ESPN “Outside the Lines” in late January after filing the case.
Wednesday’s ruling will undoubtedly stun the college sports establishment — serving both as a basic foundation for further debate and a stepping stone towards potentially groundbreaking legislation.
If upheld, the ruling could lead the NCAA to become one step closer to a “pay for play” scenario in college sports.
Northwestern promptly issued a statement after the court ruling, saying it would appeal to the full NLRB in Washington.
“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.”