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A Whole New Game: College Athletes Are Employees

Published:  March 27, 2014

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has decided that Northwestern University athletes are employees of the University and, as such, are allowed to form a union. The athletes claim they just want a seat at the table to discuss issues. However, the NLRB only allows employees to form unions; therefore, it was imperative that the “student-athletes” were deemed employees.

The NLRB defines an “employee” as “a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.” The athletes are compensated with scholarship packages worth over a quarter-of-a-million dollars during their time at the university, Northwestern earned about $235 million in revenue from the athletes’ efforts between 2003 and 2012, and the athletes are subject to complete control in their duties as football players. For these reasons, the NLRB regional office determined these athletes were employees.

This decision will likely have widespread consequences on and off the field. Now athletes may be eligible for worker’s compensation for injuries from training or a game, may be entitled to wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act, or the University could become subject to unemployment insurance laws. As the first quarter ends the crowd is left to wonder “who else might be an employee?”

But these players shouldn’t plan their touchdown dance yet. This game is going into overtime as Northwestern plans to appeal this decision.

If you have any questions regarding employee classifications, please contact any of the attorneys at Royal LLP at (413) 586-2288.