NLRB: Northwestern Football Players are Employees

Football-MoneyThe regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago issued a ground-breaking decision yesterday: all scholarship players in Northwestern University’s football team are deemed employees of the university and therefore may form a union.   Although subject to a certain appeal, the clear signal is that big-time college athletics is changing, like it or not.

What does the NLRB’s decision mean?

Peter Sung Ohr, Regional Director for the NLRB in Chicago, determined that scholarship athletes at Northwestern are really employees, and not “student-athletes.”  The decision will be appealed to the NLRB in Washington, DC and may ultimately be decided in federal court.

Why did the NLRB make this decision? 

It primarily boils down to economics, time commitment and control.  It’s no secret that college football generates ungodly sums of money.  But the NLRB detailed the pervasive control that coaches have over the lives of football players, and the time that players devote to the sport.  For example:

  • Although the NCAA limits players to spending 20 hours per week on their sport, players are actually spending between 40 and 50 hours a week on football;
  • Players are restricted or must get permission from coaches to (1) make living arrangements; (2) apply for outside employment; (3) drive personal vehicles; (4) travel off campus; (5) post items on the internet; (6) speak to the media; and (7) use alcohol and drugs.
  • Players are unable to enroll in certain classes due to football commitments.

The NLRB found that the control exercised over players and the time commitment required reflects an employer-employee relationship, not a typical school-student relationship.

What is the biggest takeaway?

The NLRB held that Northwestern’s football players are not “primarily students.”

What is the significance of  the ruling?

If upheld, athletes (at private universities only) would have a say in their wages and working conditions and would qualify for as workers’ compensation benefits.

Where can I find more information on this ruling?

Click here for a PDF of the decision, courtesy of’s Lester Munson has a great piece on this story.

Michael McCann has a Q&A  on and appeared on PBS Newshour to discuss the decision.


  1. If college athletes are deemed to be employees of the school, would this not destroy all the advantages Title IX has created for female athletes? Since Title IX is an educational policy, would it have any effect in collegiate sports if athletes are determined to be employees rather than students. If I am right, then colleges could cut all sports that did not generate a positive net revenue, both male and female. Am I mistaken here?

  2. Dan Fitzgerald says:

    Good question, George. It’s very early to predict Title IV implications, but as Michael McCann wrote, it may depend on how the bargaining unit is defined (all athletes or only football players). Check out his Q&A on


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