Why Sports Parents Must Read The NLRB's Northwestern Ruling

Mar 26 2014, 9:23pm CDT | by

Why Sports Parents Must Read The NLRB's Northwestern Ruling
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

On March 26, the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of an attempt by Northwestern University football players to unionize. In a 24-page ruling, NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr spelled out why Northwestern’s scholarship players would be considered employees, and in so doing destroyed the NCAA’s long-held argument of collegiate competitors as “student-athletes.”

Boiling down Ohr’s ruling, he concludes that Northwestern football players are employees because their pay — their scholarship, valued at up to $76,000 per year — is predicated solely on football, independent of their status as students. Meanwhile, that pay and the players’ activities are controlled by the school as if it is their employer. (Ohr said because they aren’t paid, walk-on players who don’t receive a scholarship aren’t considered employees.)

For parents of young athletes, the ruling is worth reading, first as an inside look at the grinding, highly controlled world that awaits your child, if he or she is lucky enough to get employment, er, a scholarship, er, employment. It’s also worth a read because it, as the first shot at what is likely to be a long battle in changing college sports as we know them, portends a college sports world much different that we know today. What it looks like, no one has any idea yet. But any parents who seek a sports scholarship for what they see as their budding star, or who may be hearing from recruiters already whether they want to or not, need to be aware this world is changing.

The NLRB report reads as if the Northwestern football program is an employer along the lines of a meat processing facility. Are you or your child ready for the grind, the stress, the absolute control a coach will have (or least try to have) over everything your child does? Can your child handle 40 to 50 hours a week, on average, on his or her sport, on top of academic requirements? Are you OK with your child having to make academic sacrifices, including changing majors, to conform to the team’s schedule? Are you OK with your child being allowed only limited, proscribed periods away from campus, to the point your Christmas morning might be spent driving him or her back to campus instead of opening presents with family? And even the NLRB acknowledges Northwestern is fairly understanding when it comes to balancing academics. Imagine a school that isn’t.

From the NLRB report (as posted by ESPN.com):

The football coaches are able to maintain control over the players by monitoring their adherence to NCAA and team rules and disciplining them for any violations that occur. … In addition, the coaches have control over nearly every aspect of the players’ private lives by virtue of the fact that there are many rules that they must follow under threat of discipline and/or the loss of a scholarship. The players have restrictions placed on them and/or have to obtain permission from the coaches before they can: (1) make their living arrangements; (2) apply for outside employment; (3) drive personal vehicles; (4) travel off campus; (5) post items on the Internet; (6) speak to the media; (7) use alcohol and drugs; and (8) engage in gambling. The fact that some of these rules are put in place to protect the players and the Employer from running afoul of NCAA rules does not detract from the amount of control the coaches exert over the players’ daily lives.

When I was in college, I probably worked 40-50 hours per week at two different student newspapers. However — and this is true even though I drew a paycheck and received some scholarship money — I was able to pick out my own apartment, take other jobs, drive my car without anyone’s permission, to anywhere I needed or wanted to go, and, um, in theory, drink, do drugs and gamble. I was expected to do my work, but with the NCAA not worried about student newspaper eligibility (I even transferred back and forth between two schools without having to sit out a year, as athletes do), I had some level of personal freedom. College sports is more like the U.S. Military Academy, at which you drop off your freshman, who is then lead through a large steel door slammed shut, its echo reverberating through the campus, to make it abundantly clear to parents your child is under someone else’s complete control.

You don’t like it? Go play intramurals, brother!

Perhaps if I were on full scholarship the newspapers would not have been so understanding, but it was also clear, because they were independent of their journalism departments and because they paid me, that I was an employee, not a student-reporter. Certainly, for $76,000 a year, you would expect Northwestern to exert some influence to get return on its investment. What parents have to consider when reading the ruling is, given the extremely high likelihood your kid won’t go pro (assuming your kid can even get a scholarship), is the sacrifice and strain worth it?

Another, more vexing issue for parents in reading the report is, how are they supposed to guess what the college sports landscape will look like by the time their little prodigy is going for a scholarships? The answer is, they can’t.

The College Athletes Players Association – which brought the case with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and the United Steelworkers Union — is still a long way from getting in the door to organize college sports. For one thing, Northwestern is appealing the ruling, so nothing happens until that it settled. The ruling also is specific to football. What if you’re on the field hockey team? Also, I’ve seen many lawyers posit on social media that the NLRB has domain only over private schools. Someone wanting to have college athletes declared employees at public school would have to appeal on the state level.

The only clear thing is that the first major crack has emerged in the current collegiate sports model of student-athletes being controlled totally by their coaches and schools. If parents aren’t sure what to make of all this, I’ll leave them with the advice I’ve given since day one of this blog: let your kids play, have fun and lead the way, and whatever happens, everyone is more likely to be satisfied.

Source: Forbes Business


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