Are College Football Players Students or College Employees?
Recently, the Chicago Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are employees under the National Labor Relations Act. Although this ruling, if ultimately upheld, could have far reaching implications, I do not intend to focus on these implications, but on the basis for the ruling.
Northwestern is a NCAA Division 1 school. The football staff, in addition to having a head football coach, also has a director of football operations, a director of player personnel, a director of player development, nine full-time assistant coaches, four graduate assistant coaches, five full-time strength coaches, two full-time video staff employees, two administrative assistants and various interns. None of the football staff is considered to be part of the academic faculty.
Although the Northwestern football players are matriculating students, the NLRB determined that those players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships were “employed” by Northwestern as athletes, and that attending Northwestern as academic students was secondary.
The NCAA rules limit “countable athletically related activities” to 20 hours a week during the regular football season and spring football practice and to 8 hours a week during the remainder of the off-season. However, many activities are not included in the counted hours such as mandatory training meetings, “voluntary” weight conditioning and strength training, training tape review, travel and “voluntary” practices.
Northwestern football players are subject to strict and exacting control throughout the entire year, commencing with training camp 6 weeks before the academic year, during which players may be engaged in football related activities from as early as 5:45 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Once school begins, players do not commence regular classes for several weeks, to enable them to devote 40 to 50 hours per week to football related activities. Players may spend an additional 25 hours over a weekend traveling to and from the game, in meetings and competing in the game.
After the end of the season, players still are expected to devote significant time to football related activities and although some of these activities (including conditioning, weight training and review and discussion of game tapes) are “voluntary”, it is unusual for a player to not actively participate.
The athletic department (not the admissions office or the financial aid office) “awards” football scholarships, which are not need-based, as are other scholarships awarded by Northwestern. Scholarships are paid solely in exchange for participating in the football program, and include full tuition, tutoring, fees and books, room and board, and certain incidentals.
As a result of the foregoing factors, among others, the NLRB found that “it is clear scholarship players devote the bulk of their time and energy towards the football services they provide” and “the fact that the players undoubtedly learn great life lessons from participating on the football team and take with them important values such as character, dedication, perseverance, and team work, is insufficient to show that their relationship with [Northwestern] is primarily an academic one.”
The NLRB distinguished its 2004 Brown University decision regarding graduate teaching assistants, who were held to not be “employees” of Brown, on several grounds including (i) the status of teaching assistants as primarily students whose research and teaching was a core element of their academic degree requirements, and (ii) the relationship of graduate students with the academic faculty.#
Arthur Katz, a corporate attorney, is a member of the New York City law firm Otterbourg P.C. and the editor of the Law & Education section of Education Update.