Ruling Signals Sea Change in Collegiate Sports

March 26, 2014… Mark it down, readers… An enormous day in the history of college sports.

Peter Ohr, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), ruled that all eligible football players at Northwestern University on a scholarship can be considered “employees” of the institution.  As individuals who are compensated and under the control of the university, such student athletes fall into the definition of an “employee”, according to Ohr. As such, they have all the rights afforded to employees, including the right to form a union.

If upheld, the ruling could present a dramatic shift in the world of collegiate sports.  Players for private institutions under a scholarship have,  for the first time, the right to unionize and exercise labor protections that previously have existed only for professional athletes.

This is news that the 16 billion dollar industry of collegiate sports is not happy to hear.  The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) issued a statement disagreeing with the ruling, stating it “opposes a move to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone to attend college.”

Notably, this ruling is limited, and only applies to student at private institutions on scholarships. But one can’t help but think that the trek along the slippery slope has begun.   What, truly, would distinguish a college athlete at a public school on a scholarship from that of a student at a private school? Similar structures of compensation and issues of “control” exist, whether a student athlete plays for the University of Massachusetts or Boston College.   True, the jurisdiction of the NLRB does not extend beyond the private sector, but how long may it take before a challenge is made in a different forum, citing the winning arguments of this case? Public school players on a scholarship would have to gain the approval of a state labor board to unionize, but really, how difficult is this task likely to be?  I’m guessing, about as difficult as standing in line at Dunkin Donuts to order a large hot regular.  This ruling is just that earth-shattering, folks.

Granted, maybe Ohr was having a bad day and issued a ruling that he hadn’t fully thought through.  But in so doing, perhaps he brought a breath of fresh air into college sports, and reinvented the genre in a positive way.  Bear with me, folks, but maybe he saw that, darn it all, college sports are highly entertaining, and maybe those who provide the entertainment should be protected under the same laws that protect other athletic professionals who entertain us.  For, in the end, are these really amateurs?  I’m not so sure.  We all watched Michael Jordan lead the Tar Heels to a national title, but did any of us think he could not make it professionally? I didn’t, and I don’t think any reader out there did.  Talent is talent and maybe talent should be protected from exploitation, at the collegiate as well as the professional level.

It is not clear where this will go from here.  The ruling could be reversed, or its effect could be limited to those at private schools on scholarships.  Regardless, it is a watershed moment in college sports that at least has the potential to fundamentally change the paradigm.  For that, I congratulate Mr. Ohr, and the Northwestern players group, for their pioneering efforts.