Northwestern University formally asked a U.S. labor agency on Wednesday to review a decision by one of its regional directors that the school's football players are effectively employees and can therefore vote on whether to unionize.
The "unprecedented decision" could "alter the underlying premise on which collegiate varsity sports is based," the university's attorneys said in a brief filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington, D.C.
A union election at the Chicago-area school in Evanston, Illinois, is scheduled for April 25. The five-member NLRB could decide to postpone that vote while it considers the university's appeal.
"While we respect the NLRB process, we disagree strongly with the regional director's opinion," Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage said in a statement.
"We hope that the full NLRB will not only review this decision but will hold that Northwestern's football scholarship athletes are not employees, and the petition seeking an election for the players to vote on union representation will be dismissed," Cubbage added.
The decision of regional director Peter Sung Ohr ignored much of the factual record in the case, misconstrued and disregarded NLRB precedent and failed to consider the practical consequences of such a finding, Northwestern said in its appeal.
The university previously vowed to pursue "all of its legal options" to reverse the finding that its football players are school employees.
The push to unionize Northwestern's football team is spearheaded by its quarterback, Kain Colter, and Ramogi Huma, a former University of California-Los Angeles football player who now advocates for student athletes.
Colter and Huma co-founded the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), a first-of-its-kind union to represent student athletes in elite sports programs.
The case has inflamed a national debate over whether elite college athletes are truly amateurs. Colleges and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) benefit handsomely from ticket sales, television contracts and licensing deals.
The NCAA reported $872 million in 2012 revenue. Northwestern's football program generated revenue of $235 million and expenses of $159 million from 2003 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
But NCAA rules prohibit players from earning income beyond their academic scholarships and nominal stipends that cover the cost of college attendance.
The NLRB regional director noted that Northwestern football players each receive scholarship assistance worth about $61,000 per year, and in exchange spend 40 to 50 hours a week during the regular season practicing, playing and traveling to games.
The regional director's decision ignored much of the factual record in the case, misconstrued and disregarded NLRB precedent and failed to consider the practical consequences of such a finding, Northwestern said in its Wednesday appeal.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker in Washington; editing by Howard Goller and Matthew Lewis)