SBD/February 13, 2014/Colleges

NLRB Hearings Begin In Northwestern Football Players' Quest To Unionize

Attorneys for both Northwestern Univ. and the school’s football players seeking to unionize “provided opening statements Wednesday in Chicago on the issue of whether college athletes are university employees," according to Alejandra Cancino of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. Players and "other witnesses are expected to begin testifying next week in the same regional office of the National Labor Relations Board." Ultimately, the case "could end up before the NLRB" in DC. The group of players has "a sizable list of demands, which includes financial coverage for sports-related medical expenses, placing independent concussion experts on the sidelines during games, establishing an educational trust fund to help former players graduate and 'due process' before a coach could strip a player of his scholarship for a rules violation." Alex Barbour, an attorney representing NU, said that the players "are similar to graduate students." He cited an '04 case in which the NLRB "ruled that graduate students seeking to unionize at Brown University were not employees." John Adam, an attorney representing the players, said that the school "controls when and where they practice and their behavior on and off the field." He added that NU "generates huge revenues from their work as players and pays them in the form of scholarships or grants." Adam said that their role as athletes "is separate from their role as students and therefore they are employees of Northwestern." Former NLRB Chair William Gould IV said that the case "could take at least a year before it reached" the NLRB in DC and "could drag on even longer." Gould said, "The universities and the NCAA would do anything to dispute the case and stall the case because they know that time is their friend." He added that football players "who want to form a union will eventually graduate." Gould said that if the decision "is delayed long enough ... the union would lose the core of its supporters" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 2/13).

SORTING OUT THE FACTS: The AP's Michael Tarm noted both sides "acknowledged the key question was whether college athletes should be considered employees." Yesterday's hearing "was meant to identify main points of contention, not to thrash them out in detail." That "happens next week with three days of testimony." A decision on whether the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) "can organize could come soon after." One witness who "will testify next week for those petitioning for the union" will be outgoing NU QB Kain Colter (AP, 2/12). Adam said that CAPA is "not alleging that Northwestern University has violated NCAA rules." He said CAPA intends to "demolish the myth" created by the NCAA that student-athletes are not employees. In Chicago, Gruen & Guy note CAPA "aims to represent only those players who have received athletic scholarships." Barbour called this an "arbitrary grouping." He argued that the “scope of the unit” should also include walk-on players (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 2/13).
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