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Northwestern appeals ruling that would let football players unionize

Updated: April 9, 2014 6:40PM

Northwestern University filed legal papers Wednesday asking the full National Labor Relations Board to overturn the Chicago regional director’s ruling that Northwestern scholarship football players are employees and may be represented by a union.

Calling the March 26 decision by regional director Peter Sung Ohr “unprecedented,” Northwestern’s brief says the director overlooked or ignored key evidence that Northwestern presented showing that its student-athletes are primarily students, not employees. The appeal was filed with the NLRB in Washington, D.C.

“Northwestern presented overwhelming evidence establishing that its athletic program is fully integrated with its academic mission, and that it treats its athletes as students first,” the brief states. “Based on the testimony of a single player, the regional director described Northwestern’s football program in a way that is unrecognizable from the evidence actually presented at the hearing,” it continues.

Northwestern argues the regional NLRB ruling improperly refused to apply the legal precedent established in the NLRB’s 2004 decision in a Brown University case, in which the NLRB held that the graduate assistants were primarily students, not employees.

Northwestern also argues the ruling ignored testimony that academics is the primary mission of Northwestern for all of its students, including student-athletes. Pointing to the 97 percent graduation rate among Northwestern football players — the highest among Football Bowl Subdivision schools in the country — the brief states, “The remarkable graduation rate is not something that should merely ‘be noted’ in passing, as the regional director did, but instead demonstrates the emphasis that Northwestern places on the academic success of its student-athletes.”

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