In January, Northwestern University football players petitioned the NLRB to be recognized as a union.  (Previously published here).  Yesterday, to the surprise of many, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) granted the unprecedented request, finding that grant-in-aid scholarship football players are “employees” within the meaning of the federal law and are therefore eligible to unionize.

The decision, issued by NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr, placed great significance on Northwestern’s financial benefit from the football program.  Ohr noted that the Northwestern football team generated total revenues of $235 million between 2003 and 2012 and $30.1 million in revenue in 2013.  Another factor given considerable weight was the number of hours invested by the student-athletes, as well as the amount of control that the coaches have over the daily lives of the scholarship players.  However, the 24 page decision can be boiled down to the ultimate conclusion:  “Players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees within the meaning of the Act.”

Northwestern is, of course, “disappointed” with the ruling.  In a written statement released by the university, the school’s vice president for university relations stated that, “While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it.”  The statement went on to say that the school will appeal the decision to the full NLRB in Washington D.C.  From there, the matter will likely go before the judicial system, and possibly even the Supreme Court.

Although Wednesday’s decision is just the beginning of what is certain to be a drawn out fight, the ruling very clearly has the potential to completely change the face of college sports.

Squire Sanders will closely follow developments pertaining to this issue and will provide updates as the matter progresses.