By Ken Reed

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that college football players (at Northwestern University anyway) fit the definition of “employees,” making them eligible to form the first labor union in the history of college sports. Under this ruling, players would be eligible to collectively bargain compensation and other benefits, including medical coverage. In effect, it would give them a seat at the negotiating table on all issues impacting their wellbeing.

Of course, this NLRB decision is far from a done deal. Northwestern has already started the NLRB appeal process, and undoubtedly the NCAA will bring in its legal guns at some point. But given this ruling, and other recent developments like the Ed O’Bannon case, change is most definitely on the way in college sports.

And pro sports for that matter. For one thing, it’s unlikely that the NFL will continue to be able to use the NCAA for a free minor league player development system. An NFL minor league will likely be one fallout of the evolution of college sports.

But that’s a topic for another day. Despite a multitude of experts saying the Northwestern players, led by quarterback Kain Colter, would lose the NLRB case, they scored a huge victory. If you look at the merits of the case it seems like a no-brainer in the players favor. Consider that football players don’t get any academic credits for playing football. Also, they are compensated at some level for playing, in the form of a scholarship. And they put in 40+ hours a week on their sport, as Colter testified in this NLRB case. Sure sounds like employment to me.

Regional NLRB director Pete Sung Ohr agreed, saying that it can’t be said that Northwestern’s scholarship athletes are “primarily students.”

Change is definitely coming, even though we don’t know what it will ultimately look like. For example, will this NLRB ruling impact all college sports or just football? If it’s just football and men’s basketball, what are the Title IX implications?

Nevertheless, Ohr’s NLRB ruling intuitively feels like momentum moving in the right direction — especially for college athletes, who have long been denied basic economic and civil rights the rest of us take for granted.

It wasn’t the final step, but the NLRB ruling was a grand step toward social justice for college athletes.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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