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Illinois' Northwestern athletes victorious in employment dispute

In a landmark decision, Illinois’ Northwestern University football team scored a huge victory in the arena of the National Labor Relations Board.  After years of wrangling for something other than student status, the college football players are, at least for now, employees of Northwestern University with all of the same benefits, including workers’ compensation.

In fact, much of the precedent that has held that student athletes are not employees has been based on workers’ compensation claims. If this ruling stands, which will be determined after what will likely be a lengthy appeals process, it may make a significant difference in the way injured athletes are treated in terms of workers’ compensation benefits.

The ruling was based on facts that the NCAA has fought for years against those who have been proponents of college athletes being paid. The most basic reason for the ruling is the evidence of how much control the university has over its football players.

First, the board looked at the financial benefits that the athletes provide to the school’s athletic program. The board found that the $235 million made by the Northwestern athletic department between 2003 and 2012 is partially a result of the student-athletes’ performance on the football field and that their scholarships are compensation paid in exchange for their athletic services.

The second prong of the decision is based on how much the university dictates the schedules of its athletes. The board looked at the itineraries given to the players that schedule hour-by-hour activities that they are required participate in. These mandated activities take place from 5:45 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

The board then looked at other elements of control that the university has over its players, including punishment for violations, and approval of living arrangements, communications with the media, and employment off the football field, among others.

Without a doubt, Northwestern University will be appealing this decision. And if the ruling stands, the repercussions could be monumental for college athletics. After extensive recent publicity about the long-term effects of concussions on football players after a head injury, the workers’ compensation consequences could be significant.  

Source: Forbes, “Northwestern Student-Athletes Clear The First Hurdle To Unionize,” Alicia Jessop, March 26, 2014

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