October 19, 2021

Volume XI, Number 292

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October 19, 2021

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October 18, 2021

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Northwestern Scholarship Football Players Found to be Employees Eligible for Union Representation

Peter Sung Ohr, the Regional Director for Region 13 of the National Labor Relations Board issued a Decision and Direction of Election pertaining to the effort of the Northwestern University football players to unionize. The Regional Director found that scholarship football players at Northwestern University are “employees” within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act and eligible for union representation. The Regional Director found appropriate a bargaining unit composed of “all football players receiving a grant-in-aid football scholarship and not having exhausted their playing eligibility.”

The Regional Director used the common law definition of employee in reaching his decision. Under the common law test, a person is an employee if he performs a service for another, under a contract of hire, for compensation, and is subject to the other’s right of control. He found the following:

  • The scholarship football players perform a service (playing football) for compensation (a scholarship)

  • The scholarship players’ commitments to play football in exchange for the scholarship constitutes a contract for hire

  • The scholarship players are under the control of the University for the entire year, including in-season and out-of-season workouts, restrictions on their entire personal life and detailed regulations players must follow at the risk of losing their scholarship

The Regional Director decided the NLRB’s 2004 Brown University decision, in which the NLRB found graduate assistants not to be employees of the university, to be inapplicable here because playing football is not part of the players’ academic degree program. However, he wrote that even if the Brown University test was applied, the scholarship football players would be found to be employees. He noted:

  • The scholarship players are not primarily students due to the 50-60 hours a week during the season that they devote to football

  • The scholarship players’ football “duties” do not constitute a part of their academic degree requirements

  • The academic faculty does not supervise the players’ football duties; rather, coaches who are not part of the faculty do so

  • The grant-in-aid football scholarship is not need-based like the financial aid other students receive but is given solely in exchange for playing football

The Regional Director rejected two additional arguments made by the University:

  • He decided the scholarship football players are not “temporary employees” (who are generally ineligible to participate in collective bargaining) because they work more than 40 hours a week during the season, work year round, expect to work for 4-5 years and play football as their prime consideration

  • He did not include the “walk-on” players in the bargaining unit. He found that they are not employees within the meaning of the NLRA because they do not receive a scholarship and are not subject to the conditions for its receipt

The University now has until April 9, 2014 to file a Request for Review to appeal the Regional Director’s ruling to the NLRB in Washington, D.C

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2021National Law Review, Volume IV, Number 86
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About this Author

Gregg E. Clifton, Collegiate Sports Attorney, Jackson Lewis, disciplinary hearings Lawyer
Office Managing Principal

Gregg E. Clifton is Office Managing Principal of the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as one of the editors of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major...

(602) 714-7044
Paul V. Kelly, Jackson Lewis, white collar criminal defense lawyer, internal investigations attorney
Principal

Paul V. Kelly is a Principal in the Boston, Massachusetts, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He has extensive experience in white collar criminal defense, internal investigations, complex civil litigation and crisis management. Mr. Kelly is the firm’s White Collar and Government Enforcement Practice Group Leader. A former sports industry executive, he is also one of the firm’s Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group Leaders.

617-305-1263
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