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Big-time college football players are paid employees, says historic ruling. Here’s why.

A 2011 picture of Northwestern’s Kain Colter passing against the Boston College Eagles. He had a big victory yesterday before the National Labor Relations Board. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

A federal labor official ruled Wednesday that big-time college football players on a full ride are exactly what many critics always thought they were: paid employees of their universities. They get compensated not for attending school but for playing football.

Unlike students on scholarship, they thus are legally entitled to form a union.

The National Labor Relations Board got involved when Northwestern University rebuffed efforts by a former quarterback, Kain Colter, to organize a union of players in order to obtain, among other things, medical coverage for players left with lifelong problems because of injuries on the field.

While the ruling by Peter Sung Ohr, the Chicago regional director of the NLRB, does not apply to public universities and may ultimately require a Supreme Court decision for resolution, it was nonetheless historic. It officially rejected what many considered the laughable contention that football stars on full scholarship at a big university are just like other students, or as Northwestern argued, the equivalent of graduate teaching assistants who, like football players, get financial aid.

They just aren’t, Ohr ruled. It wasn’t even close. Here are the main reasons he gave why the players are not like regular students.

Regular students generally don’t get recruited regardless of their grades. Football players do.

It’s the rare regular student who gets as much as $76,000 worth of scholarship each year, which is what the top players get. In return, they bring in big money, about $235 million for Northwestern since 2003 in various TV-related forms of revenue, he said. That’s called employment, he said. And Northwestern is the employer.

Regular students don’t give the university control over their lives as a condition of admission or aid. Football players do — as a condition of keeping their scholarships.

Regular students are not told when to eat, where to live and even when and how long to sleep. Northwestern players are. They can’t rent an apartment, buy a car or even tweet without the permission of the coach. If they go on Facebook, they are required to friend the coach.

Nobody intervenes for regular students if they can’t make an exam. An assistant athletic director intervenes for football players at Northwestern, if, for example, they have to miss an exam because of a game.

Sure, grad students who teach or do research get financial aid too, just like the players. But grad students spend most of their time being students, he said. Football players spend most of their time playing football, 40 to 50 hours per week, “more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs and many more hours than the players spend on their studies.”

The teaching or research duties of grad students  are a “core element” of their education and often a degree requirement. The duties of a football player have nothing to do with their education. Grad students are supervised by academic faculty member while football players are supervised by coaches.

“The NCAA is a dead man walking.”

That was one sportswriter’s comment Wednesday after the decision.

Wrote Clay Travis of Fox Sports:

“We can debate when exactly the NCAA as it’s presently constructed will give up the ghost, but the organization that has spent our lives arguing that athletes are students engaged in amateur competitions is finished.”


Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.

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