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NLRB Sides With College Football Players Hoping To Unionize


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A ruling by the National Labor Relations Board today could really shake up big-money college sports. The board took the first step in favor of allowing Northwestern University's football players to unionize. A regional director for the board ruled that these college athletes meet the definition of university employees under federal law.

NPR's David Schaper joins us now from Chicago. And, David, first tell us what exactly did the ruling say?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, Robert, the regional director here in Chicago for the NLRB, Peter Sung Ohr, says Northwestern football players who receive scholarships fall within the federal labor law's broad definition of employee. And if this is upheld, that means that the players can now vote to have a union represent them and collectively bargain on their behalf.

There's a group called the College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, and that's the group that the players are seeking to have represent them. And CAPA can then negotiate to establish compensation, working conditions and benefits at the university for these college football players.

SIEGEL: Now remind us, why did the players move to form a union in the first place?

SCHAPER: Well, college sports, big time college sports has been plagued with all kinds of problems for years and years and years. There are grading scandals and financial scandals and those sorts of things. And players have often felt that they don't have a voice at the table in the big decisions that are made about them often. And Northwestern players came at this saying that they work long hours at their sport, more than 40 hours a week when you count practices and workouts, in addition to the games. They're under the strict supervision of university coaches with limits on what they can do.

Kain Colter, who is the starting quarterback who is graduating this year from Northwestern - hoping to be drafted in the NFL this spring - was the articulate guy made the case for his fellow players, testifying before the NLRB about how hard and long they work. And talking about, yes, they do get compensated in the form of scholarships and that can be worth a lot of money at a school like Northwestern.

But that it really pales in comparison to the big-money salaries that the coaches are getting, and the athletics directors are getting, and the billions and billions of dollars that schools, that are part of the NCAA are getting. So it was really about that issue.

And health care is another issue that the players bring up quite often. Injuries to players are very problematic. They get health care for those injuries suffered while they're at school and still playing, but not for health problems caused later in life by those injuries. So those are some of the problems that the players believe they can only resolve equitably by having a union represent.

SIEGEL: Well, what has the reaction been from the Northwestern University and from the NCAA?

SCHAPER: Well, in a statement, Northwestern says it's disappointed in the ruling, as you can imagine, and will appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., while continuing to explore other legal options, as well. Meaning that this will probably end up in the federal courts at some point down the line. The NCAA is also says it is disappointed in the ruling and will join the university in that appeal to the NLRB in Washington. Northwestern is a member of the NCAA and they are both parties to this action.

The university and NCAA both argued in the hearing process that student athletes are not employees because scholarships are not wages. Scholarships can only be used for educational purposes. And Northwestern's football coach testified that even though the players said football came first, that he tells his players that school comes first. So it's one of these issues that has a lot of back and forth.

Northwestern is pretty much a test case in this effort. And being a private school in a suburb just north of Chicago, in a big athletic conference like the Big 10, it's a test case. But if it succeeds, we could probably see this movement spread to other college campuses all across the country.

SIEGEL: And for now, does it go to the full NLRB?

SCHAPER: It does go to the full NLRB. There's a timeframe that I'm not clear, I think there's 30 days before that - the appeal process can be made up. Then, if the university is still not happy with that ruling, it can turn to the federal courts. And the federal courts have taken up this issue in relation to graduate assistance in the past. So there is precedence that it would be dealt with there.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Schaper. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.