All entries for June 2014

Labor Law in College Athletics: The Possible Impact of Northwestern Football Players

Recognition of Players as Employees Opens the Door to More than Mere Unionization

On March 26, 2014, the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) issued a decision recognizing student-athletes of Northwestern University as employees of the school. There are several important findings within the Chicago office’s decision that could have widespread ramifications in the world of college sports and labor law:

  1. The decision found that, unlike other students who offer additional services to the University such as graduate assistants, the players are not primarily students based on the amount of time the players spent on football versus the time they spend in the classroom;
  2. The decision found that the scholarships offered to the football players were unrelated to the players’ academic studies and were premised almost entirely upon the players’ athletic abilities and performance;
  3. The decision found that the scholarships not only provide value to the players in exchange for their football performance and activities, but also provide a financial incentive whereby Northwestern can exert control over the players’ activities athletically, academically, and socially, creating an employment relationship;
  4. While the decision found that Northwestern places a high value on the players’ academic education, it further found that the players are controlled by their coaches to such a degree that the University must make extraordinary efforts in order to ensure that the players receive an education;
  5. Non-scholarship players (“walk-ons”) were found to have nothing tying them to the team except their love of the game and the strong camaraderie that exists between the players, which is essentially the reason set forth by the National College Athletics Association (“NCAA”) as to why amateurism exists in college sports.
  6. Finally, the decision ordered a test-case election to be conducted in which the Northwestern football team would vote on whether or not to form a union.

The players cast their votes on April 18, 2014. However, the results have been impounded until a review of the decision is rendered by the three-person panel based in Washington, D.C., who agreed to hear the case on April 24, 2014. Most experts agree that the results of the vote itself matters little. If the review board affirms the decision of the Chicago office, the players will still be employees of the school regardless whether they decide to form a union or not. This legal status makes scholarship college players akin to professional players and, as the National Football League’s (“NFL”) history proves, is far more important than forming a union.

The present situation with Northwestern indicates that the NFL’s past history is set to repeat itself on the college level. There are a number of striking parallels between the current situation of the Northwestern football players and the most recent labor conflict within the NFL.

First, the main actors in both conflicts are not the players but members of the legal system, especially the attorneys for both sides.

Another parallel is that the institution in both cases, e.g., Northwestern University and the NFL, threatened to take away the season rather than negotiate. Northwestern’s president has recently suggested the university would eliminate the Division I program before negotiating with a players’ union, while the NFL locked out its players before the 2011 season.

Most importantly, as pointed out by an expert in the field, Northwestern and the NCAA are focused on archaic issues. Michael H. Leroy is the author of “Collective Bargaining in Sports and Entertainment” and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His article shows that throughout its history, the NFL has always successfully opposed the tactics of the players’ union.

The real threat to the NCAA, as it was to the NFL, is antitrust lawsuits brought by the players. If the players at Northwestern are affirmed as employees, they could have the same ability as their professional counterparts to sue without a union. Just possessing the power to do so could be enough to completely alter the face of college athletics.

To learn more about labor law in general, continue browsing our blog and knowledge center, or contact us to discuss your case today.


Icard Merrill's Michael L. Foreman Featured as a Panelist on Ethics and Professionalism At the 2014 Bench Bar Conference

Michael L. Foreman, an attorney and shareholder at Icard Merrill, was a featured presenter at the 2014 Bench Bar Conference.

The theme of this year’s conference focused on current issues related to civility and professionalism within the legal industry.

Mr. Foreman was a panelist in the breakout session dedicated to discussing civility for transactional lawyers practicing businessreal estate, probate, estate planning and guardianship law.

Mr. Foreman focuses in probate, estate planning and guardianship law and his discussions as a member of the panel dealt specifically with professionalism and civility within those areas of law.

Mr. Foreman highlighted frequent areas of professional and ethical violations for probate, estate planning, and guardianship attorneys. A unique situation that Mr. Foreman discussed was dual representation in the “second marriage” situation. One of Mr. Foreman’s pieces of advice was to make a “loud exit” by withdrawing if either party attempts ex-parte communication.

When discussing civility in communication with other attorneys, Mr. Foreman’s advice was to “put in writing, sleep on it before you send it, keep the big picture in mind, and use the Golden Rule.”

Read our press release for more information…