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In a first-of-its kind ruling, the NLRB has ruled that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation’s first union of college athletes. The question before the NLRB was whether the football players – who receive full scholarships to attend the University – should be considered employees under federal law, thereby allowing them to unionize. An “employee” is typically regarded as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the direct control of managers. The NLRB concluded that in the case of the NU students at issue, the football coaches were like managers, and the scholarships were a form of compensation (approximately $76,000 per year, if the student enrolls in summer courses). Football players typically devote 40-50 hours per week to the sport, and have to follow strict rules – both on and off the field – imposed by their coaches.

The union seeks primarily to negotiate over health and safety issues for the students, and does not intend to push for “pay-for-play” wages (which are prohibited under NCAA regulations). The union will also seek the creation of an educational trust fund to help former players graduate. If college players are able to demand compensation for injuries suffered training or during a game, it may raise the issue of whether the players should be treated as employees under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

This labor issue will likely have broad implications for private universities nationwide. However, the University has indicated that it will appeal the NLRB’s decision, and it could be years before any resolution becomes clear.