Northwestern submits brief in appeal of football union ruling

Northwestern submits brief in appeal of football union ruling
July 3, 2014, 5:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Northwestern University submitted a brief in its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday.

The brief was submitted as part of the university's appeal of the board's ruling earlier this year that Northwestern football players qualify as employees and have the ability to form a union.

That ruling, made by the Chicago regional director of the NLRB, was one of several key moments in a still-unfolding story surrounding the fight for increased rights for student-athletes. It led to an actual vote by members of the football team on whether or not to form a union and fight for collective-bargaining rights — first proposed by ex-Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and his College Athletes Players Association. The results of that vote won't be released until the appeals process runs its course, though comments from players since the vote seem to indicate the majority of the team did not support a union.

Thursday's brief submitted by the university illustrated its argument in opposition to the initial ruling, arguing that student-athletes are in a "cooperative" relationship with the university rather than the "adversarial" relationship between employer and employee. But the backbone of the university's position is this: Northwestern student-athletes are students first.

[MORE BIG TEN: B1G 40: How will union cloud affect Northwestern?]

“Northwestern’s football student-athletes pursue more than 20 distinct majors across the various undergraduate and graduate programs, consistently maintain a cumulative GPA over 3.0 and graduate at a 97-percent rate, best in the nation,” the brief says. “The Regional Director merely ‘noted’ this evidence in passing and ignored its significance in demonstrating that the relationship between Northwestern and its student-athletes is primarily educational, not economic.”

The university argues that the ruling "discounted" the testimonies of former players who said that academics came first.

“Academic scheduling takes precedence over football scheduling,” the brief says. “That the relationship between Northwestern and its student-athletes is an educational, and not an economic, one is underscored by the extraordinary steps coach (Pat) Fitzgerald has taken to minimize conflicts between football practice and student-athletes’ academic schedules.”

Getting more legal in its argument, Northwestern also argues that the ruling was made under no legal reason and that legal precedent wasn't followed, that a 2004 decision that graduate students were not employees was not properly applied.

[MORE BIG TEN: Indiana announces student-athlete bill of rights]

Interestingly, the brief makes mention of several topics that have made news in recent weeks. It notes that Northwestern provides four-year scholarships to athletes and provides medical coverage for student-athletes. These topics — initially part of the list of goals of Colter and his group — have come up in a recent statement from the Big Ten presidents as reforms they wish to make and in the more-recent student-athlete bill of rights announced by Indiana University last week. Northwestern's brief also echoes the argument that the awarding of collective-bargaining rights to college football players would violate Title IX.

The brief is a long one, more than 60 pages in length, but the school highlighted its main argument in a release. This situation will continue to play out over some time, but consider this another important moment.