By Tom Raum
WASHINGTON – A national organization representing college and university presidents on Friday disputed a federal ruling that students who receive college athletic scholarships are essentially employees of their schools and thus entitled to join unions and exercise collective-bargaining rights. But labor organizations took the other side of the issue.
“Student-athletes participate for their own benefit; they do not render services for compensation,” said the 1,800 member American Council on Education. They “are not employees and therefore not subject to the National Labor Relations Act.”
Ahead of a midnight deadline, the council filed a 30-page friend-of-the court brief taking strong issue with the ruling earlier this year by a National Labor Relations Board regional director that allows college athletes at Northwestern University to unionize. It was one of several briefs filed on both sides of the debate.
The full labor board is weighing the case.
Northwestern University asked the labor board to overturn the ruling, saying that its Chicago-region director “overlooked or ignored key evidence that Northwestern presented showing that its student-athletes are primarily students, not employees.”
Instead the regional director’s decision “relied incorrectly on a common-law definition of employee that considered the amount of control an employer has over an employee,” said Northwestern, which is located in Evanston, Illinois.
In its own brief, the fledgling College Athletes Players Association argued that Northwestern football is a commercial enterprise from which the university derives substantial financial benefits. “They are entitled to representation…the regional director’s decision should be affirmed,” the union said.
At its core, the players’ union said, “this case involves the same questions that arise in every representation case: Do the players perform services for the university? Do they work under the university’s supervision and direction? Do they receive compensation for their work?”
Answering in the affirmative, the players’ union said that under federal law, the players are entitled to vote on whether to unionize “and to pursue a collective voice to address their working conditions.”
The Northwestern college athletes on scholarship did hold an election in the spring. However, the ballot box was sealed pending a final NLRB decision.
In other voices in the case:
• The AFL-CIO labor union asserted in its brief that the Northwestern football program “functions as a largely autonomous commercial enterprise that is affiliated with and generates revenue for the university. There is no question that the players…‘work for’ the Northwestern football program in much the same way as professional athletes.”
• Republican members on the House Education and Workforce Committee, led by its chairman, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., urged the labor board to rule against the college athletes’ union. “The profound and inherent differences between the student-university and employee-employer relationship makes employee status unworkable both as a matter of laws and in practice.”
• Republican members of the Senate Labor Committee also sided with Northwestern, saying in its court filing, “Congress never intended for college athletes to be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and doing so is incompatible with the student-university relationship.”
• A coalition of unions representing major league professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey players filed its own brief supporting the players, noting that Northwestern, a member of football’s Big Ten, should be able “to negotiate clearly delineated contract terms” with the university “that respect each other’s vital concerns and include a fair and effective dispute resolution mechanism.”
AP Education Writer Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.