After a disappointing Saturday loss, a college quarterback returns to practice Monday to find his coach ready and willing to revisit the weekend and remind the quarterback that his starting position and scholarship are on the line. Several days of long and exhausting practices follow and the coach continues to pressure the quarterback. The quarterback, finally pushed to his limits, takes to Facebook to proclaim his disappointment in the coach’s actions and various intricacies of the football program, and he asks his teammates for their input.
The quarterback and two other scholarship starters exchange posts about having to devote more than fifty hours a week to football related activities, the insufficient amount of time players have with the medial treatment staff, and late night mandatory meetings to discuss game plans. The coach ultimately gets wind of the online grumblings and cuts the quarterback and his two cohorts for their public chat session. According to a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the coach may have violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).
On March 26, 2014, the Regional Director for Region 13 of the NLRB issued a decision in the Northwestern University athletes’ case finding that football players receiving scholarships from the university are “employees” under the NLRA. In general, the NLRA, among other things, prohibits an employer from discharging or otherwise discriminating against an employee for engaging in protected concerted activities, including discussing wages, hours, or working conditions. In an earlier decision, Hispanics United of Buffalo, 359 NLRB No. 37 (Dec. 14, 2012), the NLRB ruled that an employer unlawfully terminated five non-union employees based on comments, similar to those above, they posted on Facebook and ordered the employer to reinstate the employees. Read together, these decisions appear to give the NLRB the authority to fully reinstate the three football players in the above scenario and dictate the coach’s starting lineup.
Northwestern University has until April 9, 2013 to file a request for review with the NLRB, but the university has already indicated its intention to appeal the decision to the Seventh Circuit. For now, employers, including collegiate sports programs, will have to monitor the situation for future developments.