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Northwestern appeals NLRB ruling on football team unionization

By Mason Levinson
Bloomberg News

Northwestern University appealed a decision by the National Labor Relations Board allowing the school’s football team to form the first players’ union in college sports.

Northwestern, based in Evanston, Illinois, filed a brief today with the full NLRB in Washington, saying in a news release that the initial ruling by Chicago NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr ignored key evidence.

The players’ group, known as the College Athletes Players Association, has until April 16 to file a brief in opposition to Northwestern’s appeal, which had to be lodged by today.

Ohr ruled March 26 that scholarship football players are employees because they are compensated and come under the university’s control.

His decision, along with recent lawsuits seeking to increase college players’ rights, have the potential to upend the business of college sports. Under current broadcast contracts, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the five most powerful conferences are guaranteed more than $31 billion.

The players’ group is seeking to secure guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical expenses for current and former athletes, compensation for sponsorships, a trust fund to help former players finish their degrees and an increase in athletic scholarships.

Flawed Decision

Northwestern’s brief “takes the position that the decision by the regional director improperly refused to apply the legal precedent established in the NLRB’s 2004 decision in Brown University, in which the NLRB held that the graduate assistants were primarily students, not employees,” the school said in its release.

“Northwestern presented overwhelming evidence establishing that its athletic program is fully integrated with its academic mission, and that it treats its athletes as students first,” the university says in its brief, according to the release. “Based on the testimony of a single player, the regional director described Northwestern’s football program in a way that is unrecognizable from the evidence actually presented at the hearing.”

The NLRB governs the rights of private-sector employees, meaning Ohr’s ruling only affects athletes at private schools. Public-school players seeking to unionize would have to gain approval from state-run labor boards.

Ohr set April 25 for a vote by Northwestern players on whether they want to be represented by a union. A majority of the 76 football players eligible to vote would be needed to form the union.

Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said March 30 on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the NLRB ruling eventually would be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

NCAA Lawsuits

The NCAA and five conferences -- the Southeastern, the Atlantic Coast, the Pacific 10, the Big Ten and the Big 12 -- were sued twice last month by college players looking to improve their financial standing.

A group of football players filed an antitrust suit accusing the organizations of running a cartel that generates billions of dollars while illegally capping the pay of the players.

Shawne Alston, a former West Virginia University football player, also sued, claiming the NCAA and conferences conspired to limit the value of his scholarship to less than the actual cost of attendance at the school.


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