Early this week, we wrote about “costly” unpaid internships. But lawsuits over unpaid internships are only the first tremors in the shifting landscape of student workers.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) just ruled that football players at Northwestern University who receive scholarships are employees of the school and can unionize. The Northwestern case is one of several that might change the nature of college athletics.
In arguing against the athletes’ bid to unionize, Northwestern cited a 2004 decision by the NLRB that declared graduate assistants at Brown University were not employees and therefore could not unionize. The NLRB concluded in the Brown case that the graduate students’ work assisting faculty members was related to their academic studies and hence they were “primarily students,” not employees.
In distinguishing between the student-athletes and graduate students, the NLRB determined in the Northwestern case that the relationship between the university and the athletes was economic — not educational — based on the fact that the athletes’ football duties are unrelated to their academic studies. Therefore, unlike the graduate students, the athletes were not “primarily students.”
Detailing weeks in which the athletes spent up to 50 to 60 hours on football, the board declared:
Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies…Obviously, the players are also required to spend time studying and completing their homework…But it cannot be said that they are “primarily students” who “spend only a limited number of hours performing their athletic duties.”
Though Northwestern will appeal the decision, it already seems to be affecting how some colleges approach their athletes. Stanford, for instance, sent out a memo to its coaches and staff members on how to respond — or not respond — to the NLRB’s ruling.
Indeed, over at the Title IX Blog, Erin Buzuvis speculates on how the ruling might affect Title IX: “I believe that if the decision results in actual bargained-for benefits for student-athletes of one sex, Title IX would continue to require that such benefits inure equally to student-athletes of the other sex.” Buzuvis continues:
This outcome will surely seem weird to many people…But that’s the consequence of…running a profit seeking business enterprise while receiving federal support and non-profit status. With the latter comes the obligation to comply with civil rights laws like Title IX. And now, with the former, comes the obligation to comply with employment and labor law as well.
As Lloyd Cotsen and Lauren Gaydosh have pointed out, the Northwestern case provides an opportunity for the higher education community to reflect on the proper balance between the students’ education and their campus work experience:
Regardless of legal definitions all students engaged in campus-related work deserve proper protections and regulations…The NLRB ruling should not scare us but instead encourage careful thinking about how to avoid exploitative student labor and preserve a meaningful campus work experience.
The decision, then, is an opportunity for schools to reflect on how they can help ensure a healthy work-life balance for students, one that fosters a positive campus environment for everyone.
UPDATE (8/27/2015): On appeal the NLRB declined to assert jurisdiction — a decision effectively denying the players the right to unionize under the NLRA.