The efforts of Northwestern University’s scholarship football players to unionize could have profound implications for the future of college education.
According to the Associated Press, Northwestern University just filed a 60-page brief with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington, D.C. This comes after a regional director of the NLRB ruled this past spring that “football players who receive full scholarships to the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can unionize.”
If the decision of the regional director is upheld, the framework between the players and the university would be redefined from one of a student-athlete orientation to an employer-employee configuration. This would fundamentally alter the operation of student athletics in an unprecedented fashion.
To treat college athletes as employees who have chosen to attend that university specifically to pursue an athletic, vocational mission would inflict great damage to the “student-athlete” paradigm that has guided administration within the realm of university athletics. Indeed, in Northwestern’s brief that was filed for the regional hearing, the University makes it clear that its current philosophy with respect to the “football program is [that it’s] an avocation, not a vocation.” The brief details how intercollegiate athletics is simply just one of 480 co-curricular activities that are offered to Northwestern students for “purposes of providing the broadest educational experience available.”
Some may regard the distribution of scholarship grants to constitute compensation, comparable to what a normal employee would collect while rendering a service. The University has staunchly rejected this argument as “athletic scholarship funds do not bear the hallmarks of compensation, as the funds are not subject to taxes or withholdings.” The brief continues: “In fact, if the benefits of the athletic scholarships were treated as wages or compensation for services rendered, Northwestern student-athletes would not be able to participate in NCAA football.”
What is at the essence of this dispute is Northwestern’s belief that the NLRB regional director “overlooked or ignored key evidence that Northwestern presented showing that its student-athletes are primarily students, not employees.”
At first glance, it would seem that Northwestern should prevail. Even though there are far-reaching financial motivations that shape intercollegiate athletics, the University by all accounts appears sincere in its claim that all kids who are admitted to Northwestern, do so with an academic objective that supersedes any other predisposition.