Under the Obama administration, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has taken some radical positions, but its newest decision makes clear that all bets are off in the second term. The Regional Director of the NLRB office in Chicago ruled this week that college football players at Northwestern University are actually “employees” under federal law, and therefore are entitled to form a union and bargain for employment terms (i.e. compensation.). An article from ESPN on the news story can be found here. First, it is important to not over-react to this decision. It will be appealed, and will likely be reversed once the case makes its way out of the NLRB and into the courts. In the meantime, it is reasonable to expect that other university athletes will file similar election petitions and seek to join the effort. There are a lot of college athletes and to unionize the entirety of college athletics would mean big money for organized labor. Simply, there is a financial incentive for organized labor bankrolling this fight all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
For now, we can only wonder about what the world would look like if the Obama NLRB got its way. Can you imagine a player’s strike in the middle of the Final Four? If athletes are employees, does that mean they can be fired? If a coach yells at an athlete or sits them out of a game, can the athlete file a grievance? These questions sound far-fetched, but won’t be so silly if athletes really are employees protected under federal law.