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What the Northwestern college football decision means for Michigan State football

There's been significant buzz about what yesterday's decision giving Northwestern football players the right to unionize. Here's what it could mean (if anything, really) for MSU football.

Matt Marton-USA; TODAY Sports

Yesterday a National Labor Relations Board (the federal agency which dictates rights of unionization for private-sector employees, known as NLRB for short) judge ruled that Northwestern football players have the right to unionize.  Patrick Vint has a great article detailing the logic and ramifications of the ruling, but if you want the bulletpoints, here they are:

  • For the NW football players to win, they had to prove they were "employees". To do this, they needed to show the following: that they were under contract of hire to perform services for another, that they were subject to the employer's control, and paid in return. In short, the players would have to proved they were hired, controlled, and paid by Northwestern.
  • The judge found that the letter of intent and scholarship were the contract, and the hours of practice as well as game time were the services for another, satisfying the "hired" condition.
  • The judge also found that Northwestern exhibited significant control over the players. Coaches have the final say on apartment leases as well as outside employment, and players cannot profit off their likeness or image (that's the heart of the O'Bannon case, but that's another can of worms entirely). This satisfied the "controlled" condition.
  • Lastly, the judge ruled that the players' scholarships satisfied the "paid" condition.
  • Since the players were ruled to be hired, controlled and paid by Northwestern, the players were ruled as employees and now have the ability to unionize.
In addition, the judge also stated that since the players spend much of their time in football-related activities, they were athletes first, students second. From Mr. Vint's article (which I emphasize again, is fantastic - please read if you're interested in a greater understanding of the case):
He held that Northwestern football players, who spend 40 to 60 hours a week on football duties during the season and repeatedly adjust their class schedules to make time for football activities, are not primarily students, and that their compensation -- scholarships -- is not financial aid. The scholarships are provided not for the players' academic performance -- in fact, many of the players would not even be admitted to Northwestern were it not for their football prowess -- but for their performance of services for Northwestern on the field of play.

You're probably reading this article because you have questions about what this could mean for Michigan State football. Remember at the beginning, when I said the NLRB has authority over private sector employees?  Since MSU is a public school, the NLRB ruling has no effect on MSU football players, and state labor laws would apply. Since Michigan is a right-to-work state (THIS IS THE PART WHERE I EMPHASIZE NO POLITICS IN THE COMMENTS THAT DO NOT DIRECTLY PERTAIN TO THE TOPIC), it's doubtful a union could get much traction in collegiate football programs in Michigan.

So what does this all mean for the Spartans? Not much. There are several other cases currently in the courts that could prove extremely damaging for the NCAA, such as concussion lawsuits, the Kessler antitrust case, and the O'Bannon case regarding use of players' likenesses (If you're interested, here's an article that does a great job explaining each of those cases in brief). While private schools such as Notre Dame, USC, and Miami (just the Florida one) are concerned today, public universities are worried, and rightly so, about several other cases currently in the legal system.