A group of six Republican lawmakers asked a federal labor board to reverse a preliminary ruling that expanded the definition of “employees” to include Northwestern University football players on scholarship, a decision that opened the door for the athletes to form a union.
The lawmakers said Congress never intended for college athletes to be considered employees under federal labor law and doing so is incompatible with the student-university relationship. They argued that if the ruling applies to Northwestern football players, it would also apply to countless undergraduate students in a variety of extracurricular activities.
The lawmakers are Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, Rep. Phil Roe and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Rep. Virginia Foxx and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia.
William Gould IV, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, said it is unusual for lawmakers to file briefs.
“They are probably trying to intimidate the board,” he said.
The National Labor Relations Board requested comments from interested parties as it decides whether to affirm, reverse or modify a March ruling by its regional director in Chicago.
Gould said a decision would likely be reached before December 16, when the seat now held by a former general counsel of the AFL-CIO expires.
Northwestern appealed the March ruling. On Thursday, the school argued that its football program is part of the educational experience, that it focuses on its athletes’ ability to succeed academically and that its football scholarships are financial aid, not wages.
The school said the regional director’s decision is “replete with factual errors and mischaracterizations of the record” and urged the board not to use the case to “reform” major college football.
The College Athletes Players Association, CAPA, which is asking the labor board to affirm the ruling, said the record shows that players perform services for the university, work under the university’s supervision and direction and receive compensation, in the form of scholarships, for their work.
It added that bargaining over players’ football duties would not “inherently intrude” upon Northwestern’s academic freedom. Furthermore, it said, negotiations between a union representing football players would not break National Collegiate Athletic Association rules because there are many areas that remain open to bargaining, such as medical benefits.
Briefs also filed by interested parties including five pro-sports unions and the NCAA. The issue eventually could be resolved in federal court.
The unions said that while the university “may” not have the authority to deviate from NCAA and the Big Ten rules, allowing CAPA to bargain on behalf of the players is not pointless. And that the school’s constraints are not different than those faced by parties in most bargaining settings.
“It is common for outside constraints – practical as well as legal – to affect the scope of collective bargaining,” the unions said.
The NCAA said the outcome of the case could have an “irreversible, negative impact on the future of intercollegiate athletics and higher education in the United States.”
The association argued that scholarship students-athletes are exclusively students and the decision of the regional director interferes with the ability of university leaders to set educational policy.
The legal fight began in January, when the players filed an election petition with the Chicago office of the NLRB.
Both sides now have until July 31 to file responses to each other’s arguments.
Northwestern is represented by the Chicago law firm Meckler, Bulger, Tilson, Marick and Pearson. CAPA is represented by a team of attorneys including Stephen Yokich of the Chicago law firm Cornfield and Feldman.
CAPA is backed by the United Steelworkers, which is covering the group's legal expenses.Copyright © 2015, RedEye