On July 3, Northwestern University asked the full National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to overturn a ruling by the NLRB Chicago regional director earlier this year that Northwestern scholarship football players are employees and may be represented by a union.

The Petition to Unionize

On Jan. 28, a newly formed College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) filed a petition with the regional office of the NLRB to allow them to unionize and obtain collective bargaining rights. The petition was filed on behalf of football players at Northwestern University; an undisclosed number of NU players signed union cards. This was reportedly the first attempt to unionize in college sports.

“The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern,” said Kain Colter, a former NU quarterback and cofounder of CAPA. “We love Northwestern. The school is just playing by the rules of their governing body, the NCAA. We’re interested in trying to help all players – at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It’s about protecting them and future generations to come.”

Some of the group’s initial demands include financial coverage for medical expenses incurred as a result of  sports-related injuries, requiring independent experts on concussions be on the sidelines during games and establishing a trust to help former players graduate.

The Regional Director of the NLRB issued a ruling on March 26 that Northwestern University’s football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees and directed that a secret ballot election be held to determine whether the football players should be represented by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) for purposes of collective bargaining with Northwestern University. 

The football players cast their votes in April, but the result of the election has not been publicly disclosed pending the resolution of the matter before the NLRB.

Northwestern’s Appeal

Northwestern’s brief argues that the regional director overlooked or ignored key evidence that its student-athletes are primarily students, not employees.

“This case … poses the novel issue whether Northwestern’s decision to offer some of its football team’s student-athletes full scholarships transforms what has always been a cooperative educational relationship between university and student into an adversarial employer-employee relationship. On the record before the Board, there is no reason in law or policy to conclude that it does,” the brief states.

Northwestern also argues that the regional director improperly refused to apply the legal precedent established in the NLRB’s 2004 decision regarding Brown University, in which the NLRB held that graduate assistants were primarily students, not employees. Instead, the brief argues, the regional director’s decision relied incorrectly on a common-law definition of employee that considered the amount of control an employer has over an employee.

Northwestern’s brief presents other arguments including that academics is the primary mission of Northwestern for all of its students, including student-athletes.

“We hope that the full NLRB will rule that Northwestern’s football scholarship athletes are not employees and the petition seeking an election for the players to vote on union representation will be dismissed,” said Alan K. Cubbage, vice president for University Relations at Northwestern, in a prepared statement. “We applaud our players for bringing national attention to these important issues, but we strongly believe that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address these concerns.”