A: Yes. When the Northwestern players stunned their coaches and their university with their petition to form a union in February, most observers agreed that the players had little chance of success. The idea of a collegiate athletic union was inconceivable to many involved in college sports. But the leader of the players, Kain Colter, and a legal team assisted by the United Steelworkers, presented a compelling picture of the daily regimen of Northwestern football players, convincing Ohr that they were workers and employees and not primarily students.
Instead of the mythical amateur athlete playing for the love and glory of the game, Ohr saw workers in a huge commercial enterprise who were already being paid for their service in the form of scholarship, workers who were dependent on their employer (the university) and were, therefore, entitled to form a union. For those in authority in college athletics who feel that players should simply be grateful for the opportunity to play, the ruling is a shocking and revolting development. But it may be a look at the future of college sports.
Q: Northwestern plans to appeal the ruling. Can the university win its appeal?
A: In its detailed presentation of the life of a Northwestern football player and in its analysis of the applicable law, Ohr's opinion clearly anticipates the appeal. It will be difficult for Northwestern to make any significant changes or amendment to Ohr's descriptions of the enormous commercial value of the players' work and the demands placed on a player.
It will also be difficult for Northwestern to find legal precedents that will help it in its appeal. The critical precedent is a case involving Brown University and decided in 2004. Northwestern argued that that case's ruling that graduate assistant instructors were students and not employees was the rule that governed the football players' situation. But Ohr, in an impressive bit of scholarship, explains in detail why Northwestern is wrong and why the Brown ruling does not apply to scholarship athletes.
Northwestern will have a difficult time convincing the labor board in Washington that Ohr was wrong. In addition, Northwestern will be up against three members of the board recently appointed by President Barack Obama who are likely to lean in the direction of the union and against the university.
Q: What impact does the decision have on public universities?
A: None. The decision in the Northwestern case affects only private universities. Any attempt by players to form a union at, say, Ohio State, or Nebraska, would be governed by the specific state's laws on unions of public employees (teachers, firefighters, police.) It is different in each state. But there would seem to be little doubt that athletes at these public schools will be watching what happens to determine whether they want to do something similar. Large public employee unions like the SEIU or AFSCME may be willing to help these athletes in the same way the United Steelworkers helped Colter and the Northwestern players.