The Chicago office for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) [official website] on Wednesday ruled [report, pdf] that football players at Northwestern University qualify as employees, and therefore have the right to unionize. In its finding, the NLRB used the "right to control" test, which considers a variety of factors in determining the level of control an employer has over an alleged employee. First, the board found that "grant-in-aid scholarship football players perform services for the benefit of the Employer for which they receive compensation." Next, the board found that the players were under strict control by their employer, stating that "grant-in-aid scholarship players are subject to the Employer's control" in the performance of their duties as football players. Finally, the court found that the players are employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) [text], stating that "the Employer's football players who receive scholarships fall squarely within the Act's broad definition of 'employee' when one considers the common law definition of 'employee'." Although this decision is a huge step forward for the students seeking unionization, the case is far from over, as the university will likely appeal soon. If the athletes are successful in forming a union, it would be the first player union in the history of the NCAA [official website] and pre-NCAA college athletics. The ruling could also have massive implications for college athletes around the nation.
The ruling could potentially turn into a landmark decision, as it deviates from precedents of past cases involving the status of college students as employees of universities. One such critical case, which this ruling discusses, is Brown University [report, pdf], an NLRB case from 2004 that questioned whether graduate student teaching assistants were employees of the university. The board distinguished Brown, stating that the football player's duties were completely unrelated to their academic studies, while the teaching assistants' duties in Brown were related. Similarly, in Boston Medical Center [materials], the board found that an employer's interns, residents, and fellows were indeed employees because they had already completed and received their academic degrees.