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College Football Players Get a Union. Will They Get Paid?

The National Labor Relations Board rules Northwestern University football players can unionize. That doesn't mean they'll get paid.

College Football Players Get a Union. Will They Get Paid?

The National Labor Relations Board rules Northwestern University football players can unionize. That doesn't mean they'll get paid.
I'm an employee; pay me, already. Photographer: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
I'm an employee; pay me, already. Photographer: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
I'm an employee; pay me, already. Photographer: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Under Barack Obama's administration, the National Labor Relations Board has, unsurprisingly, headed in a more union-friendly direction. But I can't say I saw this coming:

In what could be a landmark case, a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board today backed a bid by football players at Northwestern University to unionize.

"I find that all grant-in-aid scholarship players for the Employer's football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are 'employees' under" the National Labor Relations Act, Peter Sung Ohr, director of the board's Chicago regional office, wrote in his ruling. Ohr said walk-on players -- those without scholarships -- do not qualify as employees.

The ruling cites several factors in concluding that the scholarship football players at Northwestern are employees: that they perform services for the benefit of their employer, and receive compensation (in the form of a scholarship) in exchange, and that scholarship players are "subject to the employer's control in the performance of their duties as football players."

It's long been an open secret that football players at schools with major sports programs are something closer to an employee of the athletic department than to a member of the student body. Many of them aren't capable of college work, and those who are aren't necessarily encouraged to do any.

The fiction that they're students is maintained only by NCAA rules that forbid outright compensation of players, and "gifts" that are just compensation in disguise. You can argue, and I would, that these rules mostly benefit the colleges, not the "students." I understand that the players get something out of the deal. But they would get a lot more if it weren't for a legalized cartel that's actively suppressing their wages.

Given these realities, it's hard not to cheer the NLRB. But it isn't clear how much allowing football players to unionize will accomplish, as long as the NCAA is still allowed to make rules against paying them.

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    (Megan McArdle writes about economics, business and public policy for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter at @asymmetricinfo.)

    To contact the author on this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net