Are football players on Northwestern University’s football team employees of Northwestern University? As of this month, the answer is definitely “maybe”, and has interesting implications when it comes to the players’ social media use.
In 2015, the Northwestern football players were attempting to unionize, and took their case to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NRLB ruled that they could not unionize, because such a ruling would create a serious curve ball for public, state-owned universities that play by a different set of rules. On the issue of whether the players are employees, the NLRB declined to rule.
Last year, in a separate case, the NRLB was asked to look at the football team’s rules, which the players thought were unfair when it comes to freedom of speech. The NLRB issued an “advice memo” last month, concluding that the athletes should be treated as employees, and as such the rules – particularly the rules surrounding social media and dealing with the press – were indeed unfair. They stopped short of saying that the athletes are employees.
Despite the fact that the ruling was an “advice memo”, Northwestern agreed to change the rules in a couple of ways. The changes are memorialized in an updated version of the player handbook:
Previous: social media posts by football players may be “regularly monitored” by athletic department, university officials and campus police
Updated: public social media “can be seen by any person with a smart phone or internet access, including individuals within Northwestern University
Previous: players could not agree to an interview unless the athletic communications office has arranged the interview
Updated: players may either speak directly to the media or refer that person to the athletic communications office
While we understand that free speech is important, we don’t think that the players have gained much here unless the previous rules allowed school admins to monitor private social media communications. We haven’t heard of such a policy being in place at Northwestern or any other university.
The most important phrase here is “public social media can be seen by any person…” Public is public, and while many have tried to make a more nuanced distinction, there isn’t one to be made.
Our message to the Northwestern players is to continue to be careful what you post on social media and divulge to the media. Your team and school still have rules that you need to abide by. For example, under the revised Northwestern rules, players are still prohibited from posting “full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment or unlawful activity.” Just because you’re free to say something doesn’t mean that saying it is a good idea, either online or in the press. Just because something is true doesn’t mean you should share it with the public or journalists.
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