College football players can unionize

Marcus Ranum sent me this link to the news item that a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that college football players are like employees and should be treated as such and have union rights. As Marketplace reports:

[Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago] gave the rationale that the players are employees because they receive compensation in the form of scholarships. He said the players are subject to the employer’s control in their performance, which directly benefits the university.

This is consistent with the history of the NCAA, which didn’t start paying players until the 1940s, according to sports economists.

“At the beginning of the NCAA, in 1905, they stipulated no scholarships at all because scholarships were a form of compensation,” said Andrew Zimbalist at Smith College.

Zimbalist said that the ruling only applies to private colleges, so it doesn’t apply for the majority of schools in the highest levels of college football, since most of those institutions are state universities.

Zimbalist said that if the players at Northwestern do unionize, then the NCAA will disqualify them on the grounds that college athletics are amateur. However, he said the possibility of unionization comes with other benefits.

“Say they want a cost of living adjustment or they want to have catastrophic injury insurance for those players who are injured and can’t go on to play in the pros,” said Zimbalist. “Then they could stay within the NCAA rules and presumably they could then trigger other universities that are private to unionize and asks for the same thing.”

This ruling has huge consequences for the exploitative business that is now college football and is bound to be appealed to the highest levels since football is a cash cow for a few colleges and the NCAA.

I have argued that colleges and high schools should not field football teams because students risk permanent harm to their bodies and brains by playing, with colleges serving as essentially free farm teams for the NFL.

Maybe treating college football like a business would help its demise.


  1. colnago80 says

    Maybe treating college football like a business would help its demise.

    Not going to happen. There is too much money from TV for the major Division 1 teams to drop football. According to the article, this decision only applies to private universities. Off the top of my head, this would apply to Stanford, USC, Notre Dame, Clemson, Rice, Southern Methodist, Miami, and Duke in addition to Northwestern. There may be other schools but I can’t think of any at this point in time.

  2. doublereed says

    This news story boggles my mind. How can Northwestern call themselves an educational institution at this point? They can’t even call their players “students” anymore. They’re employees.

    Employees don’t go to their job to learn. They go for their job. They’re professional athletes. Northwestern would be a football team that happened to associated with a school.

    The only thing I hope for is maybe this shines a light on how ridiculous it is that schools put so much money into sports at the expense of doing their fucking job.

  3. doublereed says

    One of my friends asked whether or not this had implications toward adjuncts and graduate students. I just laughed at his naivete.

  4. smrnda says

    On adjuncts and graduate students; a university I attended had its graduate student employees successfully unionize, and they became one of the stronger unions on campus. It can be done.

  5. doublereed says

    Well damn, color me flabbergasted.

    Still, I’d say that sports gets such special privilege in education that I see no reason why such a ruling would have to be applied consistently throughout a university.

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