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College Presidents Say No to Unions for Student Athletes

Former Northwestern University football player Michael Odom talks to reporters.

By Tom Raum

WASHINGTON — Northwestern University urged the National Labor Relations Board to overturn a regional ruling that would allow its scholarship football players to unionize, holding up the football program as exemplifying the university’s integration of athletics and education.

In a 60-page brief filed with the labor board in Washington just hours ahead of a midnight deadline, the university laid out its opposition to student athletes forming a union and asked to argue its case before the board.

The regional director’s decision “transforms what has always been a cooperative educational relationship between university and student into an adversarial employer-employee relationship,” the university said in the brief.

Northwestern’s brief was one of several filed  by organizations on both sides of a March 26 ruling by a regional director of the labor board that could revolutionize college sports. The director ruled that football players who receive full scholarships to the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law and therefore can unionize.

An employee is regarded by law as someone who, among other things, receives compensation for a service and is under the strict, direct control of managers. In the case of the Northwestern players, coaches are the managers and scholarships are a form of compensation.

An organization of college presidents filed a friend-of-the-court brief taking strong issue with the regional director’s ruling.

“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.”

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