College Athletes Seek “Employee” Status Under the NLRA

Led by the quarterback of its football team, scholarship college athletes at Northwestern University filed a petition with the NLRB to gain union representation.  The NLRB must first decide whether these college athletes are “employees” under the NLRA.

The Northwestern University and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (“NCAA”) oppose the players’ attempt to unionize, arguing that they do not fall within the NLRA’s definition of “employee.”  According to the NCAA, the athletes are not “employees” because their primary purpose is to gain an education. 

However, backers of the unionization effort note that college athletes often spend more than forty hours per week on training and have a graduation rate of fifty percent.  Players wish to collectively bargain over issues such as healthcare after graduation because they have struggled with post-graduation medical expenses after suffering injuries on the field.

Because the NLRA deals with the private sector, a decision on the rights of the athletes at Northwestern would extend to other athletes at private universities.  It would not, however, reach college athletes at public universities.

If the NLRB decides that the college athletes have a right to unionize under the NLRA, it will further broaden the understanding of its definition of “employee.”  This case could help clarify the issue of whether an individual is an “employee” under the NLRA  when he or she is also a student at the institution for which he or she works.  The NLRB has grappled with the issue of the student-employee hybrid for decades in the graduate-assistant context.

We will continue to update you on the status of this case and others.

By Anthony Tucci | February 10, 2014

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