On March 26, 2014, an official for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Northwestern University football players are “university employees” within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act, and not simply student-athletes. The significance of this ruling is that the NLRB has directed the players to vote by secret ballot to decide whether they wish to unionize, which would force Northwestern to listen and bargain with its players on compensation/scholarship awards for playing football at the university.
Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples suggests “[this] ruling likely will have zero immediate effect. . . . and the ruling only affects players at private schools because the NLRB has no power over state-run institutions. Still, the ruling should serve as the tipping point for the NCAA and the leaders of the schools in the five wealthiest conferences to realize it’s time to stop fighting and start bargaining.”
According to the 24-page decision, between the years 2003 and 2012, Northwestern’s football program generated revenues of approximately $235 million and incurred total expenses of $159 million. The decision also provides that scholarship players typically receive $61,000 each academic year for tuition, fees, and books. Living-expense stipends are also provided to upper-classmen who reside off-campus; and additional funds may be provided to cover expenses such as health insurance, dress clothes for game travel, tutoring fees, and other assistance as needed.
Seemingly significant to the ruling were the facts outlined in the decision with respect to Northwestern’s control over the students in the performance of their duties as football players, who stand to lose their scholarship/aid for failing at any number of those duties. The decision outlines duties such as: engaging in training camp six weeks before the start of the academic year, many days beginning at 5:45 a.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m.; devoting 40-50 hours per week to their football duties during the academic year in football season; obtaining permission from coaches to make living arrangements, apply for outside employment, travel off-campus, post items on the Internet, and engage in other types of activities affecting their private lives.
The docket activity shows that Northwestern requested a review of the decision to the NLRB in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 2014. The player vote is scheduled for April 25, 2014.
 The full text of the “Decision and Direction of Election” by the NLRB can be downloaded at http://www.nlrb.gov/case/13-RC-121359.
 Andy Staples’s article is available at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/college-football/news/20140327/ncaa-athletes-union-ruling-northwestern/.
 The docket activity on this matter is available at http://www.nlrb.gov/case/13-RC-121359.
 The vote is scheduled at Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois on April 25, 2014, according to the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/09/northwestern-football-team-union-vote_n_5120617.html.