Press Release

NLRB Rules Northwestern Football Players Are “Employees” and Can Unionize!

For Immediate Release

Chicago— Today, in a historic decision that bolsters the college athletes’ rights movement, National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Peter Ohr ruled that Northwestern University football player who receive full scholarships are “employees” within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and that the players have the right to an election.   He directed an “immediate election.” 

This ruling comes two months after the Northwestern football team signed union cards  to allow the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), a new labor organization, to petition for an election so that CAPA could collectively bargain on behalf of the players.   

The Regional Director ruled:

For the reasons discussed in detail below, I find that players receiving scholarships from the Employer [Northwestern] are "employees" under Section 2(3) of the Act.   Accordingly, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that an election be conducted under the direction of the Regional Director. (P.2)

After reviewing all the evidence, the Director concluded: “Based on the foregoing and the entire record herein, I have found that all grant-in-aid scholarship players for the Employer's football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are ‘employees’ under Section 2(3) of the Act. Thus, I direct an immediate election in this case.” (P. 23)

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is leading the Northwestern football team’s unionization effort.  He stated: “This is a great decision for college players.  Having a union will only make our Northwestern football team stronger.  This a win for both the players and the football program.  As I stated many times,  we love Northwestern University. We did not seek a union because of mistreatment. It is  important that players have a seat at the table when it comes to issues that affect their well-being.  Football and basketball players generate billions of dollars per year.  Minimizing the risk of concussions should be a priority, and shielding current and former players from sports-related medical bills should be guaranteed.  Players will gain a number of important protections once this union is in place.”

CAPA President and former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma stated:  “This ruling is a major step toward justice. The courageous, enlightened young men on the Northwestern football team are demonstrating what can be accomplished when college athletes are unified.   Their actions will improve the lives of the current and future generations of college athletes.  This decision clears the way for other FBS football and Division 1 basketball players at private schools within the NCAA to organize.” 

CAPA’s legal fees were paid for by the United Steelworkers Union.  CAPA lawyers made a compelling case that Northwestern football players are employees.  They pointed out that the players perform valuable services for Northwestern University.  They have substantial football-related responsibilities year-round, performed under the strict supervision and control of the Northwestern coaches and athletic department staff.  Their football activities are separate from the players’ academic pursuits as students at the university.  In return for their football services, the players are compensated by the university through scholarships that a player receives only because he is a football player, which he will lose if he withdraws from the team.   Northwestern football players are not complaining about this arrangement, but they are accurately asserting that this is an employee-employer relationship.   The Regional Director agreed with CAPA’s legal arguments and found that the extensive hearing record supported CAPA. 

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard stated: “The NLRB clearly made the right call.  It is a great victory for CAPA and college players throughout this country.  This decision will help protect the players because the NCAA has failed to protect college athletes. This historic ruling gives players the leverage they need to protect themselves.  The Steelworkers will continue to stand side-by-side with the Northwestern football players and CAPA.”

Steelworkers National Political Director Tim Waters stated:  “The unionization of college athletes is no Hail Mary.  We never had a doubt that Northwestern football players are employees under the National Labor Relations Act.  We are pleased that the NLRB ruled accordingly.  This is a solid ruling based on an extensive hearing, and we are confident that it will withstand any appeal from Northwestern.”


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