NLRB: Northwestern Players Are Employees, Can Vote on Union

Wednesday night, a Hearing Examiner in the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are “employees” of the University and therefore are eligible to vote in an election to determine whether or not they want to form a labor union.

I previously reported that a group of players had filed a petition with the NLRB to form a union, and that the Board held a hearing to determine whether or not they were eligible to do so.  The decision by the Regional Office would set a profound precedent, certain to alter not only the nation’s labor law but also the face of intercollegiate athletics.

According to a report from, officials from Northwestern have said they will appeal the decision to the full NLRB in Washington, DC.  The ESPN report also quotes officials from other athletic conferences and from the NCAA expressing disappointment with the decision.

In short, the Hearing Examiner concluded that the players provide services (playing football) in exchange for compensation (a scholarship), in a context in which the alleged employer exercises significant control over the work.  He concluded, despite objections from the University, that the players are not primarily students who play football but instead are primarily football players who happen to attend some classes when they have time.

The case is far from over, because even if the University is unsuccessful in its appeals, the next step would be for the players to vote to determine whether a majority wish to form a union.  Either way, this case will continue to raise questions about the state of big-time college athletics and will impact the labor law as well.