The Student-Athlete Becomes An Employee
The Northwestern “Wildcats” Are Poised To Become The First NCAA Football Team To Unionize
On March 26, 2014, the NLRB issued a game-changing ruling, recognizing Northwestern’s scholarship football players as employees of the university, and thereby paving the way for the Wildcats to become the first NCAA football team to unionize (the result of the player’s vote to form a union is still pending). 
Are Scholarship Football Players Student-Athletes or Employees?
The NCAA’s failure to recognize student-athletes as employees was one of the major obstacles preventing student-athletes from forming a union. In the NCAA’s view, student-athletes are, first and foremost, students who are enrolled at universities to pursue a college education. But the reality is that athletes’ educational goals often take a back seat to their athletic commitments.
So, the term “student-athlete” is a misnomer: student-athletes are primarily athletes that are enrolled at universities to perform a job (to play ball and bring in the money). The student-athlete is recruited and “hired” by the universities (offered a scholarship) because of their athletic abilities. Moreover, the university can control nearly every aspect of an athlete’s life (e.g. dietary restrictions, enforced curfews), and the university places responsibilities on student-athletes that it does not impose on other students on campus. Under this logic, the scholarship is an employment agreement between the university and the athlete, wherein the student-athlete promises to play for the school and subject to the school’s control.
The NLRB defines an employee as “one who is under contract of hire, performs services for another subject to their control, and in return for payment.” The recent NLRB decision to define Northwestern’s scholarship players as employees of the university, even if it is reversed on appeal, is a symbolic win for student-athletes everywhere because of the recognition that they are, in some sense, “laborers” for their universities.
The Wildcat’s Winning Arguments
In order to qualify as employees of the university, the players had to prove that they were hired, controlled, and paid by Northwestern. The NLRB found that the players were scouted (hired), paid in scholarships, and sufficiently controlled by the Northwestern football programs to qualify as employees.
Regarding control, the NRLB found that the players were not allowed to enroll in classes that conflicted with their practice times, and that scholarship players were not allowed to leave practice early to make up missed classes. Northwestern also controlled the living situations of their athletes. Freshman and sophomore football players were required to live in dorms. Upperclassmen could live off campus, but they had to submit their leases to the coach for approval. Northwestern also controlled the manner in which the athletes comported themselves online. Each player’s social media account had to conform to the coach’s rules regarding acceptable online posts. The players were also required to accept the coach’s friend request so that he could ensure that the players were following his rules. 
Here, the element of control was dispositive. The NLRB found that the Northwestern athletes were primarily employees and that they were secondarily students. For Northwestern, their prioritization of athletic training over class schedules was antithetical to their purported prioritization of academics.
Unionization is Not Professionalization
The relative merits of paying college athletes have been fiercely contested. But, the issue of unionization is distinct from this issue of professionalization. For the student athletes, unionization presents a vehicle to combat the current NCAA governance structure, which divests them of the ability to participate in decisions that impact their lives. The debate goes beyond money. Players want control over the amount of time they are forced to train, medical insurance coverage that extends beyond college for lingering injuries, and greater safety measures (especially to combat head injuries).
In an interview with ESPN, former Northwestern quarterback, Kain Colter, recasts the unionization debate in political terms, focusing not on economic benefits, but on the players’ goal of democratizing the relationship between universities and athletes. Colter speaks of the desire to “secure basic protections and basic rights.”  The players want a voice in the determination of the terms and conditions of their “employment.”  To put it simply, the Northwestern athletes are asking for a seat at the bargaining table.
The Implications of Student-Athlete Professionalization
Northwestern sees the creation of a player union as a threat to the foundation of collegiate football. Not only would the employee designation for student athletes, affect the school’s awarding of scholarships, but it could lead to preferential treatment of the student employees in violation of Title XI.  Critics of player unions also argue that an employee designation for student athletes would undermine the purpose of a college education.
This decision, if it is upheld, will set a precedent that is sure to pave the way for unionization at other schools. Although the decision is currently limited to Northwestern football players, it could also potentially be extended to other private schools with successful revenue generating sports (like Basketball). 
 The NRLB ruling enabled Northwestern’s eligible football players to vote on the issue of unionization. The results of the player’s vote have not been reported and probably will remain unknown until the NLRB considers Northwestern’s appeal.
 Kain Colter, ESPN interview here: http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/10677763/northwestern-wildcats-football-players-win-bid-unionize
 Title XI may be implicated because of the gender disparity in scholarship awards. Men may have the right to unionize and women may not similarly benefit.
 Note that the recent decision does not reach public school programs because their collective bargaining rights do not fall under the NLRA.