In a ruling that could bring massive changes to college athletics, a federal agency said Wednesday that football players at Northwestern University can create the nation’s first college athletes’ union.
The decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board means that the agency agrees football players at the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law, and therefore can legally unionize.
The Evanston, Ill.–based university had argued that college athletes, as students, do not fit into the same category as factory workers, truck drivers and other unionized workers. The school plans to appeal to labor authorities in Washington, D.C.
Outgoing Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter took a leading role in establishing the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, which would be involved in organizing the players.
CAPA attorneys argued that college football is, for all practical purposes, a commercial enterprise that relies on players’ labor to generate billions of dollars in profits. That, they contend, makes the relationship of schools to players one of employers to employees.
Giving college athletes employee status and allowing them to unionize, critics have argued, could hurt college sports in numerous ways — including by raising the prospects of strikes by disgruntled players or lockouts by athletic departments.
The NCAA has been under increasing scrutiny over its amateurism rules and is fighting a class-action federal lawsuit by former players seeking a cut of the billions of dollars earned from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales and video games. Other lawsuits allege the NCAA failed to protect players from debilitating head injuries.
For now, the push is to unionize athletes at private schools, such as Northwestern, because the federal labor agency does not have jurisdiction over public universities.
An attorney representing the university, Alex Barbour, said Northwestern has one of the highest graduation rates for college football players in the nation, around 97 percent. ‘‘Northwestern is not a football factory,’’ Barbour said.
The Associated Press