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NLRB Says College Football Players Can Unionize
March 27, 2014 11:10 AM   Subscribe

The NLRB has ruled that football players at Northwestern University are college employees and can form a union.

Some commentary from Charles Pierce. Previously here at MeFi.
posted by Aizkolari (60 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wonder how long until the athletic program is shut down now?
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 11:14 AM on March 27




I could give a damn about sports but yay organizing!
posted by oceanjesse at 11:14 AM on March 27 [5 favorites]


I hope this is the first trickle of the flood that drowns the NCAA.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:15 AM on March 27 [42 favorites]


Behold: College Football Players Shouldn't Be Paid Bingo

Took me a second to parse that, but it was worth it.
posted by Iridic at 11:16 AM on March 27


The largest split came with race: White respondents opposed paying college athletes by a 73-24 margin, while non-white respondents supported salaries for college athletes, 51-46. (Hispanics also narrowly supported paying college players.)

White People Don't Want College Athletes to be Paid (Deadspin)
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 11:20 AM on March 27 [11 favorites]


The commentary on Marketplace this morning said that this only applies to private schools, since most state schools have to rely on state labor relations laws -- which, as we all know, are SO! GREAT! RIGHT! NOW! (Coming to you live from Wisconsin...)

In grad school, I was in a couple courses with a really nice football player, one of the captains, who had grown up in a family where his meals often involved waiting for the government surplus trucks to show up with government cheese. He didn't get his books until maybe three weeks into the semester, because his tuition and supply reimbursement check hadn't come through yet. (I don't know how regular of an occurrence it was.) Add that to the fact that a lot of them don't have any sort of spending money because they aren't allowed to get part-time jobs, and you've got some tough situations. Think about being able to have quarters for laundry, or picking up some NyQuil or a box of trash bags for the apartment.

Sure, they get a ton of academic and training-table support (and the training table often includes local restaurants, too). But we're doing so many athletes a disservice with everything else, particularly when so many athletes in marquee sports come from situations where food and money are so tight.
posted by Madamina at 11:22 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


To be precise -- the regional NLRB has ruled this; Northwestern has already said they intend to appeal to the NLRB in DC. That will likely not work out any better for NWU, so it and the NCAA are doubtless already preparing their court case.

One key point of Northwestern's argument was that scholarships aren't really wages, because you can't use them for anything but school expenses. The NLRB previously ruled in 2000 that graduate assistants were employees and were therefore employees and could unionize -- even though they were also being paid in scholarships, it was still money for all intents and purposes. The NLRB then reversed that decision in 2004. A keen observer will note that the NLRB in 2000 consisted of Clinton appointees, while in 2004 it consisted of Bush appointees. As of today, it consists of Obama appointees.
posted by Etrigan at 11:23 AM on March 27 [13 favorites]


The NCAA's statements on this have all been revolting. Things like: "We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid." That's because you don't pay them you fucking idiots, of course they're not playing to be paid. Now, if you ask "would you like to earn some of the billions of dollars in revenue your sport generates, instead of working and risking injury for free so that some rich dude can add a few more dollars to his giant pile?" you might get a different answer.

I like college sports (well college basketball), and I'd love to see a system continue where my beloved Tar Heels can continue to exist in some form, but we don't need to exploit the labor of the players to make that happen.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:23 AM on March 27 [25 favorites]


Northwestern disagrees with the ruling:
Northwestern University is disappointed by today’s ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board finding that Northwestern University’s football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees and directing that a secret ballot election be held to determine whether the football players should be represented by the College Athletes Players Association for purposes of collective bargaining with Northwestern University.

While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.
As noted by Etrigan, Northwestern has already said they intend to appeal to the NLRB in DC.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:24 AM on March 27


And NPR has an update to their coverage, noting that:
the athletes brought suit against the university to have a voice at the table. They argued that they received very little compensation, while the university and other employees raked in money. Another reason for the suit was health care. David explains that athletes receive health insurance for the time they are in school, but they no longer receive health care once they're gone.
I completely understand and agree with the need for the players (who are the only reason for schools making money in sports) to have a voice at the table, but I'm confused on the insurance side. As an employee who "quits" when their term is up, why should they continue to receive health care?
posted by filthy light thief at 11:27 AM on March 27


As of today, it consists of Obama appointees.

Which is a nice change from consisting of Bush appointees and tumbleweeds.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:28 AM on March 27


I completely understand and agree with the need for the players (who are the only reason for schools making money in sports) to have a voice at the table, but I'm confused on the insurance side. As an employee who "quits" when their term is up, why should they continue to receive health care?

Because many of them suffer from lingering effects of their sports-related injuries, which -- as we're seeing with CTE -- can take years to manifest.
posted by Etrigan at 11:29 AM on March 27 [25 favorites]


Until this goes all the way to revenue sharing of the sort the pro-sports unions have it will continue to be a massive crime.
posted by MillMan at 11:29 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Because, as we have seen with the NFL, often the true damage from playing doesn't fully reveal itself until years later. They might not need great coverage now, but boy howdy years from now when that bodily check comes due....
posted by nevercalm at 11:29 AM on March 27 [6 favorites]


I think it makes sense to give them the right to unionize in order to negotiate for that insurance, especially considering that some college players leave with long term health concerns from playing.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:29 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students.

This argument continues to make no sense to me. When I participated in "Work-Study," I was both a student and an employee. The argument is, I suppose, that by playing football students are enriching themselves and not the school vs. when I graded math papers, I was enriching the school and not myself. But for Div. I schools I think that argument is transparently bullshit.
posted by muddgirl at 11:30 AM on March 27 [12 favorites]


As an employee who "quits" when their term is up, why should they continue to receive health care?

The students don't quit voluntarily, they're declared ineligible to continue playing by the NCAA and the schools after four years. It's mandatory retirement imposed from above.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:30 AM on March 27 [16 favorites]


The NCAA and the networks receive billions of dollars in TV contracts so that people can watch unpaid athletes slowly kill themselves on the field. But they're not employees because of reasons.

If, as Jared Spool says, design is the rendering of intent, what is the intent behind a system designed to reward a select few based on the underpaid labor of many? (Though one could argue this for the entirety of capitalism...)
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:33 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


[T]he NCAA receives an average of $11.5 million for each and every tournament game.

Screw the NCAA.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:35 AM on March 27 [3 favorites]


If you are required to put in 50-60 weeks training, being told what and where to eat, what and where to be, with none of this having anything to do with the academic side of your education, you are an employee. I was shocked about this ruling when it came across the wire, but on review it's so obvious.

I hope this eventually causes a complete sea change in this absurd organization.
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:36 AM on March 27 [12 favorites]


March Madness alone is worth $1.15 billion in ad revenue, more than the MLB and NHL postseason combined.
posted by nathancaswell at 11:37 AM on March 27 [9 favorites]


Some observations that I would like to know more about relating to this careful what you wish for....

Why stop at the NCAA level? How about high schools, grade school, pop warner? These highly recruited athletes are sports stars prior to the college decisions. Can this be a national effort?

Are all athletes the same where non revenue generating sports should get paid? How about wrestling, crew, water polo, track and field, soccer, lacrosse?

Do they need to collective bargain with the union to determine working conditions, and if the team members fail to perform what are the University recourse (a la the Grambling players walking off)?

Was this scholarship non-taxable income before and now would be? How about the state and city "jock tax" where athletes report income earned in each state?
posted by brent at 11:38 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


Why stop at the NCAA level? How about high schools, grade school, pop warner?

Because at the NCAA level some students are given scholarships along with strict requirements. It's the difference between an employee and a volunteer. Note that this decision does not apply to athletes who are not receiving a sports scholarship.

Was this scholarship non-taxable income before and now would be?

It may make the scholarships taxable, but any portion that goes towards tuition, fees, and educations expenses is generally not considered to be taxable through one credit or another.
posted by muddgirl at 11:45 AM on March 27 [9 favorites]


Why stop at the NCAA level? How about high schools, grade school, pop warner?

If grade schools start making billions of dollars by selling the sports efforts of their children as entertainment, then I will start being even slightly concerned about whether fifth graders are being paid for playing football.
posted by grouse at 11:51 AM on March 27 [22 favorites]


After a bit of consideration, I don't actually think it would make any difference. If the scholarship is used for tuition for a student in a degree-granting program, it's not taxable. If it's used for living expenses, it is taxable. That's the same as it is now, AFAIK.
posted by muddgirl at 11:52 AM on March 27


... or on preview what everyone else said while I was typing and headscratching
posted by Slackermagee at 12:07 PM on March 27


As an employee who "quits" when their term is up, why should they continue to receive health care?

The employer, in this case, collects on the labors of the employee and then skips out on the health care costs stemming from, that continue years after the fact, injuries associated with the labor provided.


Isn't this true of pretty much any employee, though? Construction workers don't receive healthcare from former employers for conditions resulting from their employment. What they need is long-term disability insurance.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 12:12 PM on March 27


And the NCAA should offer to pay for long term disability insurance at the bargaining table with the new union!
posted by Elementary Penguin at 12:18 PM on March 27 [9 favorites]


Our company offers continuing health care to retirees. The argument seems to be that students forced off their team and out of their health care plan by term limits are retirees.
posted by muddgirl at 12:20 PM on March 27


Why stop at the NCAA level? How about high schools, grade school, pop warner?

Next thing you know, all the straw men will be unionized!
posted by Bromius at 12:23 PM on March 27 [51 favorites]


How about not treating college football like a professional sport and how about not putting the games on TV and how about not selling advertisements and how about not making a profit off the whole thing? Oh wait, I'm living in fucking fairy land.
posted by ReeMonster at 12:27 PM on March 27 [14 favorites]


Why stop at the NCAA level? How about high schools, grade school, pop warner?

Next thing you know, all the straw men will be unionized!

From ESPN radio (Denver) yesterday on the drive home. Not sure if it was Gary Miller or the host Nate Kreckman. May be tough to pin down, but they had a hard time figuring out, where exactly to draw the line on unionizing, which athletes are to be paid a stipend. They brought up some California and Texas coaches make in excess of 500000 for coaching teams and it is as big as some colleges. Shoe contracts for top prep schools, ESPN televising little league world series and some McDonalds' All American games does introduce it as a revenue generating operations.
posted by brent at 12:43 PM on March 27


I agree with ReeMonster. I sort of wish college sports were just intramural-type affairs with teams composed of people studying in various departments. I would be MORE likely to go to those games as a student. At the major state school I went to I just couldn't work up much team spirit to cheer for a bunch of guys who I never saw and had little in common with. I'm probably in the minority though. I sort of feel like people who want to make it big in pro sports should just go

high school -> minor leagues -> pros
posted by freecellwizard at 12:50 PM on March 27 [7 favorites]


brent: From ESPN radio (Denver) yesterday on the drive home. Not sure if it was Gary Miller or the host Nate Kreckman. May be tough to pin down, but they had a hard time figuring out, where exactly to draw the line on unionizing, which athletes are to be paid a stipend. They brought up some California and Texas coaches make in excess of 500000 for coaching teams and it is as big as some colleges. Shoe contracts for top prep schools, ESPN televising little league world series and some McDonalds' All American games does introduce it as a revenue generating operations.

Well, unions don't have infinite power to get whatever they want; the employer can always shut things down and go home. So that would naturally limit the ability of any of these other teams to unionize, as well as non-revenue-generating college sports (although it's possible that all the sports would end up in the same union.) And if a high school team does generate enough revenue that they would actually have some power at the bargaining table, well, they do deserve to get a piece of it.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:51 PM on March 27


They brought up some California and Texas coaches make in excess of 500000 for coaching teams and it is as big as some colleges. Shoe contracts for top prep schools, ESPN televising little league world series and some McDonalds' All American games does introduce it as a revenue generating operations.

Maybe give all players a share of the revenue then.
posted by LizBoBiz at 12:51 PM on March 27


I want to see the scabs, carrying a football, try to break through their picket line.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:56 PM on March 27 [18 favorites]


Maybe give all players a share of the revenue then.

I sure don't think this sounds nuts. I mean, if financial incentives work for coaches and pro athletes, they'd work for college athletes too, right?
posted by rtha at 12:57 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


They brought up some California and Texas coaches make in excess of 500000 for coaching teams and it is as big as some colleges.

My high school football coaches were all in the teachers union.
posted by Etrigan at 1:02 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


ESPN televising little league world series...

Just last fall ESPN did a national broadcast of a high school football game near my hometown. At first I thought "oh how nice, they want to get viewers back to the roots when football was simple" and then I realized some of the players were All-American and my thoughts became "fuck that, the public (& ESPN) just wants a jumpstart on their 2016 Fantasy Football drafts"
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:06 PM on March 27




Construction workers don't receive healthcare from former employers for conditions resulting from their employment.

They do if they're union workers. Health insurance is provided through the union.
posted by borkencode at 1:18 PM on March 27 [9 favorites]


"Why stop at the NCAA level? How about high schools, grade school, pop warner? These highly recruited athletes are sports stars prior to the college decisions. Can this be a national effort?"

Leaving aside the part that high school athletes are still literally children, and those younger than that can't even qualify for a work permit -- while there's some serious excess in places in high school sports, as a general thing, high school sports are way more tightly regulated (by state-level high school athletic associations) than the NCAA in terms of student eligibility (grades, attendance), hours spent on the field and in the classroom, student safety, etc.

The two biggest things are probably that

1) high school athletics simply don't have this kind of money sloshing through them (barring a few exceptions). My district has three high schools and we pay $200,000 per school -- $600,000 per year -- just in liability insurance for football. The football program brings in about $5,000 in yearly ticket sales. (They are largely but not entirely self-sustaining for uniforms and equipment, through fundraising and food sales at games.) The staff costs run around $50,000 per school (I want to say, without looking), and yearly maintenance on each field runs another $20,000 to $40,000 (although those fields are also used for gym class, and also we cheap out). Anyway, the cost of football easily tops $0.75 million a year and brings in $5,000 in revenue, before capital costs. Which leads to:

2) The NCAA is sports people overseeing other sports people who all stand to make a lot of money from (other people playing) sports. High school athletics is largely academic people and parents (superintendents, boards of ed) overseeing sports people who are also certified teachers. I enjoy football, but I'm obviously not going to let my own children play it; I think sports are good for children (they keep a lot of marginal students in school and improve achievement; and physical fitness is good), but there is literally zero incentive for me to pick sports OVER academics when managing the local school district. I'm glad we can maintain them as co-curriculars (just like the arts, and chess club, which is insanely popular around here) but if forced to choose between football and reading, obviously I'm going to pick reading. If forced to choose between allowing a child who's had two concussions back on the field and suspending him for the rest of the season, obviously I'm going to suspend him. As a full-grown adult I am not particularly invested in which JV squad wins the regional six-team football season, but I'm fairly invested in children not being permanently disabled by cheating on rules about head injuries! I'm not going to back up a football coach who wants a kid failing three classes to play over a school principal or a math department head who wants him benched until his grades improve. Why on earth would I? And the football coach has no real incentive to practice the players for six hours a day when the rules limit him to two, because HE WILL LOSE HIS TEACHING LICENSE and not only be unable to coach but be unable to teach. (And in some cases, monkeying with eligibility for high school student athletes can be prosecuted as felony fraud.)

High school athletics aren't clean-and-pristine, but the incentives are a LOT different.

Actually high school (and younger school) sports are so highly regulated in a lot of states that club teams specifically to circumvent those rules and let kids play at a "higher level" with looser eligibility requirements are becoming a real problem. (The solution to which is probably to put ALL youth athletics under similar state regulation that allows for different sorts of rec leagues and competitive leagues, but doesn't allow overpractice.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:32 PM on March 27 [11 favorites]


Next thing you know, all the straw men will be unionized!

Let's hope they don't start agitating for work in better arguments because that could be their undoing!
posted by srboisvert at 1:47 PM on March 27 [10 favorites]


Chris Kluwe chimes in:
I made 10$ a page writing papers for teammates who didn't know how to forge a coherent argument for whatever bullshit class it was they were taking at the time, and since rent at UCLA was almost $150 a month more than what my scholarship check covered (with a roommate), I was happy to do it, mainly so I could buy food, and take my future wife out on a date every now and then.
...
I guess basically what I'm saying is the NCAA can fuck off and die in a car fire with their million dollar yacht cruises and bonuses and bleating cries of "amateurism" as they laugh all the way to the bank every year, while another athlete who'll never go pro has to figure how to make his/her way in the world with a degree in Turf Management the school pushed them into to stay eligible.
Good Q&A at ESPN that previews some coming attractions:
Q: Northwestern plans to appeal the ruling. Can the university win its appeal?

A: In its detailed presentation of the life of a Northwestern football player and in its analysis of the applicable law, Ohr's opinion clearly anticipates the appeal. It will be difficult for Northwestern to make any significant changes or amendment to Ohr's descriptions of the enormous commercial value of the players' work and the demands placed on a player.

It will also be difficult for Northwestern to find legal precedents that will help it in its appeal. The critical precedent is a case involving Brown University and decided in 2004. Northwestern argued that that case's ruling that graduate assistant instructors were students and not employees was the rule that governed the football players' situation. But Ohr, in an impressive bit of scholarship, explains in detail why Northwestern is wrong and why the Brown ruling does not apply to scholarship athletes.

Northwestern will have a difficult time convincing the labor board in Washington that Ohr was wrong. In addition, Northwestern will be up against three members of the board recently appointed by President Barack Obama who are likely to lean in the direction of the union and against the university.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:22 PM on March 27 [6 favorites]


24-page PDF of the decision at the NLRB site.

(Possibly my favorite thing about the internet is getting easy access to court decisions and government documents.)
posted by kristi at 3:13 PM on March 27


Just wondering if anyone complaining about students getting "paid" has actually read the CAPA document that outlines their goals — where the only "getting paid" is that they want to be able to get endorsements and commercial money. Which does seem fair. They're not really asking for Northwestern to pay them more, they're more concerned with working conditions.
posted by klangklangston at 3:17 PM on March 27 [4 favorites]


A college basketball player tweeted today that security barred him from entering his team's CLOSED practice until he took the label off his water bottle because it wasn't the Official Beverage of the NCAA tournament. Fuck the NCAA.

Why stop at the NCAA level? How about high schools, grade school, pop warner?

I've said this repeatedly here but this is about value. Who creates it and who reaps the financial reward from it. Collegiate sports are a multi-BILLION dollar industry that would not exist at all without the players. This is a plantation-style economy.

Why wouldn't it work for high schools? Because outside of very local interest, there isn't enough money/value created by high school sports to support wages for the players.

For all that unionizing is seen as anti-capitalist, this is straight-up free-market economics. Players should get paid what the market will bear. In college sports, specifically basketball and football, the market can bear a hell of a lot more than $0.
posted by dry white toast at 3:33 PM on March 27 [4 favorites]


If they are student athletes and not just there to win games, limit practice to 14 hours a week, 2hours a day, and make the scholarship gauranteed for four years as long as you attend practice.
posted by humanfont at 3:46 PM on March 27 [5 favorites]




If it hurts college sports, I am for it.
posted by LarryC at 4:18 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


According to the ruling the NCAA does limit athletes to 20 hours of "sports activity" or whatever but teams stretch that as far as possible. The ruling estimate 40-50 hours per week of actually-mandatory or culturally-mandatory football events during the season.
posted by muddgirl at 4:21 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


If they are student athletes and not just there to win games, limit practice to 14 hours a week, 2hours a day, and make the scholarship gauranteed for four years as long as you attend practice.

According to the ruling the NCAA does limit athletes to 20 hours of "sports activity" or whatever but teams stretch that as far as possible. The ruling estimate 40-50 hours per week of actually-mandatory or culturally-mandatory football events during the season.


The fact that athletic scholarships are for one year at a time and revocable for any reason, the incentive is for student-athletes -- even the ones who know that they'll never make the NFL/NBA and actually want to do something with their education -- to spend as much time as possible practicing and working out and suchlike, so as not to lose their spot on the team and therefore their scholarship. Even if the school makes an effort to restrict that stuff, the kids know which side their bread is buttered on.

I'd go a step farther -- five-year scholarships, guaranteed even if the student doesn't practice. Even if as soon as he accepts the scholarship, he says, "Well, fuck football. I'm here for the degree," he gets to keep doing it. The number of kids who do that is going to be pretty small, and even if it's not, good. Michigan Stadium will still draw 110,000 people eight weekends a year; the SEC Network will still make $500 million a year; the NFL will still get enough players every year to make billions.
posted by Etrigan at 4:41 PM on March 27 [8 favorites]


I was reminded of the point in season 3 of Veronica Mars (yes I was watching it recently why do you ask) where one of the main characters, who is at school on a basketball scholarship, gets permission to take a couple months off the team without losing his funding, because he's not going to be able to maintain his challenging major otherwise. And how totally implausible that seemed.

Nobody should ever be asked to risk their bodies for the sake of a school's athletic programs and then still worry that making the right decision for their academic achievement will result in their being unable to pay for the rest of their degree program. If they think you're worth that money, you should be able to tell them at some point that, hey, I'm not going to be able to keep up with this practice schedule and my mechanical engineering degree, so something's got to give, and it's not my degree. That's what being a student should mean. In the absence of that, the only thing that makes these "college" sports is their use of school resources for noneducational purposes--either to generate funding that should be available from other sources but isn't, or, more often, not even that.
posted by Sequence at 5:04 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


I'm fascinated by how this will turn out. I'm concerned that this is going to wreck fringe collegiate sports that do not make any money. Based on current scholarship guidelines, they may have to treat all athletes equally, which could be very expensive. Schools will be forced to cut programs to offer everyone compensation.

I'd really like to see some sort of profit sharing annuity.
posted by lownote at 5:49 PM on March 27


Eyebrows McGee: "Actually high school (and younger school) sports are so highly regulated in a lot of states that club teams specifically to circumvent those rules and let kids play at a "higher level" with looser eligibility requirements are becoming a real problem. (The solution to which is probably to put ALL youth athletics under similar state regulation that allows for different sorts of rec leagues and competitive leagues, but doesn't allow overpractice.)"

This is how hockey works here. The kids playing who are good enough to draw paying fans play for teams not associated with schools and are paid for their efforts.
posted by Mitheral at 6:03 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Lots of great ideas here, as usual. Honestly I'd almost settle for colleges not being able to pull scholarships and disavow all liability when people get hurt while playing sports. I note that it's banned in California.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:21 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


As I said to my dentist today, I have a problem with a system that takes often poor, minority kids and makes hundreds of millions from their labor while not paying them a dime. Most of them are left with a half-assed education and no career in the pros.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 8:02 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Most of them are left with a half-assed education and no career in the pros.

And let's not forget the permanent physical injuries on top of that. Way to make it difficult to find employment in any field.
posted by asperity at 7:50 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Sippin' on Purple read the NLRB ruling and pulled out some great nuggets: 5 Interesting Tidbits from the Northwestern College Football Union NLRB Ruling.

"Indeed, the scholarship is clearly tied to the player's performance of athletic services as evidenced by the fact that scholarships can be immediately canceled if the player voluntarily withdraws from the team or abuses team rules."
posted by ursus_comiter at 11:36 AM on March 28


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