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Readers should be aware of a potential landmark decision from the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday, March 26, 2014, in which the NLRB found that the Division I football players receiving scholarships at Northwestern University are employees of the university under the National Labor Relations Act. It is anticipated that the decision will be appealed by Northwestern University to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. and possibly end up in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Board’s decision is limited to the football players at Northwestern University, but could pave the way for athletes at similar private universities. The Board’s decision was based on several specific factors listed below.
First, the Board found that scholarship football players perform services for the benefit of the University for which they receive compensation. In finding that the University benefits from the scholarship football players, the Board noted that Northwestern University’s “football program generated revenues of approximately $235 million during the nine year period between 2003-2012 through its participation in the NCAA Division I and Big Ten Conference that were generated through ticket sales, television contracts, merchandise sales and licensing agreements.” The Board found that the scholarships to the players are a transfer of economic value since the University pays for the players’ tuition, fees, room, board, books and a stipend for players living off-campus for up to five years, which can total up to $76,000 per calendar year at Northwestern University. The Board also found that “The fact that the Employer does not treat these scholarships or stipends as taxable income is not dispositive of whether it is compensation.”
Secondly, the Board found that the scholarship football players are subject to the University’s control in the performance of their duties as football players. The Board noted that the players who receive scholarships are under strict and exacting control throughout the entire year. The players are subject to NCAA eligibility guidelines as well as the team rules that are enforced by threat of discipline or loss of scholarship.
Third, the Board found that the scholarship players are employees under the common law definition. “Under the common law definition, an employee is a person who performs services for another under a contract of hire, subject to the other’s control or right of control, and in return for payment.” Brown University, 342 NLRB 483, 490, fn. 27 (2004) (citingNLRB v. Town and Country Electric, 516 U.S. at 94). The Board found that “players receiving scholarships to perform football-related services for the Employer (Northwestern University) under a contract for hire in return for compensation are subject to the Employer’s control and are therefore employees within the meaning of the Act.” However, the Board found that the walk-on players, those not receiving scholarships, do not meet the definition of “employee.” Similarly, the Board noted that unpaid interns, even if they are subject to similar terms and conditions of employment, are not employees because they did not receive compensation.
The Board specifically found that the statutory definition of employee articulated in Brown University, 342 NLRB 483 (2004), was not applicable to the football players at Northwestern University. In Brown University, the Board found that graduate assistants were not employees of the university since the relationship between the graduate assistant and the university was primarily an educational one, rather than an economic one.
The Board found the scholarship football players at Northwestern University were employees under the Act and that the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) (Petitioner) is a labor organization within the meaning of the Act. The Board ruled that all football players receiving football grant-in-aid scholarships not having exhausted their playing eligibility that were employed by the Employer were eligible to vote whether or not they desire to be represented for collective bargaining purposes by CAPA. The Board specifically excluded office clerical employees, professional employees and supervisors from voting.
What are the possible implications of the Board’s Decision for Workers’ Compensation? If the decision is affirmed, the Board’s ruling has the potential to change the landscape of college sports and raises a number of important questions for workers’ compensation practitioners. Will the decision include Division I scholarship athletes for all sports at private universities? What kind of benefits will the labor union(s) be bargaining for? If the athletes are employees within the meaning of the Act, are they entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries that occur while they are working? Should the scholarships received by the athletes be taxed as income and used to establish a wage? The ultimate impact of the decision remains to be seen and we will keep readers posted as this case moves forward.