On Tuesday, Northwestern University student-athletes made a historic request:  they asked to be recognized as employees of the university and to be represented by a labor union.  This was more than a flippant comment or casual request; rather, the request came in the form of a petition filed in the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The petition to unionize was filed by National College Players Association (NCPA), with the support of Northwestern’s senior quarterback, Kain Colter.  The NCPA, along with this most recent filing, has the backing of the United Steelworkers.  At a news conference on Tuesday, Colter stated that college athletes “need the same protections as NBA and NFL players.”  Colter went on to say that, “[r]ight now the NCAA is like a dictatorship.  No one represents us in negotiations.  The only way things are going to change is if players have a union.”  At this point in time, Colter is simply asking for the payment of medical care and for scholarship protection.

However, the concern for the school, the NCAA and the college sports industry is that such demands could be just the tip of the iceberg.  The real fear is that unionization may lead to compensation for college athletic involvement (“pay for play”).  Both the university and the NCAA issued prompt responses to the petition filed by the NCPA. The Northwestern athletic director made the following statement:

“… Northwestern believes that our student-athletes are not employees and collective bargaining is therefore not the appropriate method to address these concerns.  However, we agree that the health and academic issues being raised by our student-athletes and others are important ones that deserve further consideration.”

The response from the Chief Legal Officer of the NCAA also denounced Northwestern’s petition by saying:  “[t]his union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education.  Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary.”

Although the subject has already generated a significant amount of discussion, there will be no immediate answers. The next step is for the Northwestern football team to show that at least 30% of the scholarship players have joined the petition.  If Northwestern’s football team is able to meet this baseline requirement, which is likely, the NLRB will then be left to determine whether or not student-athletes are, in fact, eligible to unionize.  Regardless of the decision made at the regional level, the matter is almost guaranteed to go before the national board and will likely end up in the court system.

In the meantime, it is certainly possible that players at other schools will attempt to unionize and join in on Northwestern’s movement, as any decision on Northwestern’s eligibility to unionize would apply to all other private universities nationwide.  Public universities, on the other hand, would not be affected because state institutions are governed by state laws.

Squire Sanders will continue to provide updates as this situation unfolds.