“This will give a totally different meaning to wildcat strikes.” – anarchist prisoner Sean Swain, in a letter to me
Months after the Bowl Championship Series National Champion was crowned in college football, and as we prepared for the end of March Madness in Division I college basketball, a major victory for its players occurred off the court.
In late March, the Chicago regional chapter of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Northwestern University football players have the right to form a union if they desire, and that the Wildcats team members should legally be considered employees.
The ruling from the NLRB stated that “… players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees.” It agreed with the argument that scholarships are payment for services rendered, as well as saying that coaches are agents of the school and have employer-like control over the players.
Most notably, the Chicago NLRB ruled that the players are “primarily athletes,” which undercuts the long-standing mythos of the “student athlete” portrayed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). While harkening back to nostalgic views of pure amateur status, the term “student athlete” was created as a legal argument to prevent the NCAA and its member schools from having to pay out workers’ compensation and wrongful death claims when they were taken to court. The argument falls apart when one notes that the NCAA allows schools to revoke scholarships from athletes on a year-to-year basis if they do not or cannot (due to injury) perform at a level required by coaches.
During the hearing, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter testified that players work 40 to 50 hours per week on football-related activities before and during the season. This isn’t an isolated instance or an outlier, but commonplace throughout big time college sports.
Soon after, Northwestern University announced that it would appeal and request a hearing before the full NLRB. At press time, they had until April 9 to file. Meanwhile, the NLRB announced that the Northwestern football team would vote on April 25 to decide if it would become a union affiliated with the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA).
The victory at the NLRB comes at a time when the framework of collegiate athletics is under more criticism than ever before. Players at multiple schools, including Northwestern, have silently protested during games by wearing the letters “APU”— standing for “All Players United”—on their athletic tape. Former University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) basketball player Ed O’Bannon has filed a class action lawsuit against the NCAA over the lack of compensation for the use of player names and likeness in commercials, video games and other media. Four players are currently suing the NCAA and the major sport conferences over scholarships not being enough to fully cover the cost of attending the universities. Former West Virginia RB Shawne Alston has filed a lawsuit alleging that the NCAA and its member conferences have violated anti-trust rules by colluding to keep scholarships at an amount less than the true cost of attending the colleges. Prominent journalists, including civil rights historian Taylor Branch, have called out the NCAA repeatedly for its rank hypocrisy, stating that its labor dynamics have an “unmistakable whiff of the plantation”; and documentaries like “Schooled” are being widely screened.
While the ability of Northwestern football to unionize may only apply to private schools (public schools would have to deal with state labor laws), this groundbreaking victory will give the players a greater voice to make demands like ensuring scholarships for the duration of their schooling experience and gaining tangible benefits in their workplace. It may also be a harbinger of things to come, and the latest move in dismantling the indefensible and immoral structure of NCAA athletics that makes billions for the coaches, conferences and their organization, while the players who create the value get zero.