For almost one hundred years, student athletes have been considered students, not employees. Recently, Peter Sung Ohr, the Chicago Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) ruled that those members of the Northwestern University football team receiving athletic scholarships are employees, and not students, under the National Labor Relations Act. While Mr. Ohr apparently does not understand that a scholarship athlete can be both a student and an athlete, the reality is that these individuals are clearly part time employees based on any common law definition of employee. They receive compensation in the form of tuition as well as room and board for their commitment to play football. Playing football requires their individual (not delegated) performance and appearance at specific times and places. If they do not both perform and appear as required, they lose their scholarships. Let's be real here; Mr. Ohr is correct; these student athletes are employees under any reasonable definition of employee. (Let’s not shoot the messenger.)
Mr. Ohr’s ruling is allowing the scholarship holding football players at Northwestern to move forward in the creation of a union should they choose. Apparently as the non-scholarship athletes are not considered to be employees, they would not be allowed to become members of the union.
Whether it is best for college sports and/or the collegiate sports scholarship student athletes to be treated as employees is the important question. I think not.
There is a wow factor to most of us in the notion that a full football scholarship to Northwestern University is insufficient for a college athlete to be content with his world. Most of us would spend the rest of our lives bragging about how playing football generated a free education at one of the finest universities in the country.
There is a another wow factor to the notion that a college football player at U.C. Davis who is planning to spend four years at Davis studying chemistry on his way to becoming a veterinarian is now considered in the same breath with a defensive tackle playing in the Southeastern Football Conference planning to spend only three years at a major football power and then move along to the NFL.