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ACE Amicus Brief Supports Northwestern in College Athlete Unionization Case

July 07, 2014



​Students who participate in intercollegiate athletics and receive athletic scholarships are not employees covered by federal labor law, says an amicus brief filed July 3 by ACE and four other higher education associations with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The brief was filed in support of Northwestern University’s (IL) appeal of a March decision by a NLRB regional director to classify the school’s football players as employees, and thus allow them to unionize.

ACE was joined on the brief by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges; the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities; College and University Professional Association for Human Resources; and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.  

The ACE brief notes that:

  • Many students intensively pursue a range of extracurricular activities, athletics among them, as part of the overall college educational experience.
  • According to longstanding legal precedents and legislative intent, students cannot be classified as employees. For one thing, institutions’ missions are education (most do not earn a surplus from the athletics program), and for another, student-athletes participate for their own benefit. Athletic scholarships are calibrated to the cost of attendance, not services rendered, and are similar to other forms of conditional financial aid.
  • The Knight Commission, which has long studied intercollegiate athletics reform, rejected the same proposal that is now before the NLRB. According to the Commission, putting students “on the payroll…has nothing to do with education, the purpose for which colleges and universities exist.”

The bottom line, the brief states, is that “to hold that scholarship student-athletes are employees would be an unprecedented intrusion into the educational missions of universities. It would undermine education by impinging on academic freedom and would exacerbate many of the problems critics find with intercollegiate athletics.”

In the meantime, the results of an April 25 vote by the players on whether to be represented by the College Athletes Players Association are not being released until the full NLRB decides the case.

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