By Tim Devaney - 04/24/14 06:11 PM EDT
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced Thursday it will reconsider whether Northwestern University's football players can organize the first union for college athletes.
One day before the Northwestern football players vote on whether to form a union, the NLRB said it would grant the school's request to review the decision, which was issued by a regional official last month.
Northwestern had argued that the football players should not be considered employees because they are students first, athletes second. But NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr sided with the players.
"Eligible to vote are all football players receiving football grant-in-aid scholarship and not having exhausted their playing eligibility," Ohr said in his ruling.
The school appealed the decision to the NLRB's headquarters in Washington, D.C., where the Board agreed on Thursday to review the ruling. This does not mean the NLRB will overturn its earlier decision, only that it is considering such a move. This is standard procedure for the agency.
The ruling could have major repercussions for college athletes, as teams from other schools and sports could choose to follow the same path if NLRB officials uphold the initial decision.
Northwestern has 19 varsity sports teams and about 500 student athletes. The football team is made up of 112 players, including 85 scholarship athletes who are eligible to join a union, Ohr said.
During the NLRB's hearing process in February, Northwestern argued that unions would hurt the sport of college football by encouraging the players to strike and the school to lock them out.
But Ohr found that the players' time commitment and performance-based scholarships were reasons to consider the student athletes as employees.
During training camp when school is not in session, the players spend about 50 hours to 60 hours each week practicing, Ohr noted. Once the season begins and they have to focus on classes, they spend about 40 hours to 50 hours on football-related activities.
Ohr noted that Northwestern's football team made more than $8 million in profits during the 2012-2013 season, none of which went to the players other than through scholarships. The scholarship athletes typically receive about $61,000 each year in student aid. NCAA rules forbid players from receiving any other sort of payments for their services.
The effort has been met with mixed reactions on Capitol Hill, as Democrats support the push to give college athletes greater protections, but Republicans argue it would ruin the sport.
"These young men make a lot of money for these very wealthy coaching staffs and the university, and I think the discussion is really important," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
But many Republicans are skeptical of the Northwestern football players organizing a union. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republicans on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, warned the ruling could destroy college athletics.
"Imagine a university's basketball players striking before a Sweet Sixteen game demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food, and no classes before 11 a.m.," Alexander said in a statement. "This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it."
A contingent including former Northwestern star quarterback Kain Colter and Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, traveled to Capitol Hill earlier this month to meet with lawmakers and drum up support for the union.
Colter and Huma said they hope this is only the beginning of an effort to unionize student athletes from all sports at colleges across the country.
They are calling for stronger protections for student athletes, including medical coverage for up to five years after they finish playing for any football-related injuries such as concussions, as well as a guarantee that the players will not lose their scholarships if they get injured.
They would also like to see a greater focus on academics.
"At the heart of the matter, I don't think it's political to say that college athletes shouldn't be stuck with medical bills, I don't think it's a political issue to say that injured players shouldn't be losing their scholarships, and that half the football and basketball players don’t graduate," Huma said.
— This story was updated at 7:03 p.m.