Unassuming Labor Lawyer Is Making Sports History

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Ohio State linebacker Larry Grant (6) blocks Northwestern punter Slade Larscheid's (15) punt during the second quarter at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois on November 11, 2006. 
National Journal
Courtney McBride
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Courtney McBride
April 29, 2014, 8 a.m.

The man who sent shock waves through the col­lege sports world last month is about as far re­moved from the pomp and pa­geantry of big-time ath­let­ics as one can get.

Peter Sung Ohr, the re­gion­al dir­ect­or for the Na­tion­al Labor Re­la­tions Board in Chica­go who ruled March 26 that North­west­ern Uni­versity foot­ball play­ers have the right to form a uni­on, played only high school sports be­fore de­cid­ing to pur­sue a leg­al ca­reer de­voted to so­cial justice.

Raised in mod­est cir­cum­stances by par­ents who “worked any job they could get to provide for the fam­ily,” Ohr was 3 years old when his fam­ily emig­rated from Seoul, South Korea, to Boise, Idaho, in 1970 and even­tu­ally settled in Chica­go. There Ohr learned about the im­port­ance of sports and their “trans­fer­able life skills,” play­ing foot­ball and wrest­ling in high school.

Ohr went west after high school, earn­ing a bach­el­or’s at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (River­side); a law de­gree at Pep­perdine Uni­versity; and an MBA at Hawaii Pa­cific Uni­versity. Ohr said his goal in at­tend­ing law school was to fo­cus on hu­man rights or im­mig­ra­tion, but even­tu­ally came to see labor law as a form of hu­man rights law, as it deals with “a core right that people have throughout the world.”

After clerking for a state judge in Hawaii, Ohr landed a job as a staff at­tor­ney in the Hon­olulu field of­fice of the NLRB in 1997 and began a 17-year rise through the in­de­pend­ent agency, mov­ing to the Wash­ing­ton headquar­ters as a deputy as­sist­ant gen­er­al coun­sel in 2005 and then to the re­gion­al of­fice in Chica­go, where he took charge as dir­ect­or in Decem­ber 2011.

The move to Chica­go was not only a home­com­ing for Ohr; it offered fer­tile ground for labor cases. There are “very few places in 2014 that have as vi­brant a labor com­munity — on both sides — as the city of Chica­go,” he says, and that vi­brancy can yield “in­ter­est­ing, some­times head-scratch­ing cases.”

One of those, of course, is the case for which Ohr will go down in sports his­tory. His rul­ing that cur­rent schol­ar­ship foot­ball play­ers at North­west­ern can be con­sidered em­ploy­ees of the uni­versity with the right to uni­on­ize could trig­ger sig­ni­fic­ant changes in col­lege sports wheth­er it is up­held or not. The uni­versity has ap­pealed the rul­ing to the full NLRB, but while it is pending the rul­ing body for col­lege ath­let­ics, the NCAA, has already be­gun pro­pos­ing al­tern­at­ive ways to meet ath­letes’ de­mands.

“Clearly, the Em­ploy­er’s play­ers per­form valu­able ser­vices for their Em­ploy­er,” Ohr’s rul­ing said. “Mon­et­ar­ily, the Em­ploy­er’s foot­ball pro­gram gen­er­ated rev­en­ues of ap­prox­im­ately $235 mil­lion dur­ing the nine-year peri­od [from] 2003-2012”¦.

“The play­ers spend 50 to 60 hours per week on their foot­ball du­ties dur­ing a one-month train­ing camp pri­or to the start of the aca­dem­ic year and an ad­di­tion­al 40 to 50 hours per week on those du­ties dur­ing the three- or four-month foot­ball sea­son,” the rul­ing said. “Not only is this more hours than many un­dis­puted full-time em­ploy­ees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the play­ers spend on their stud­ies.”

Ohr said he could not dis­cuss his rul­ing with the me­dia; North­west­ern’s play­ers voted last Fri­day on wheth­er to or­gan­ize a uni­on, but the bal­lots will be kept un­der lock and key un­til the NLRB has de­cided on an ap­peal of Ohr’s rul­ing.

Ohr, 46, is the first Asi­an-Amer­ic­an re­gion­al dir­ect­or in the his­tory of the NLRB, a fact that he ac­know­ledges is a source of pride for his par­ents. While he un­der­stands the sig­ni­fic­ance of the mile­stone, Ohr said the dis­tinc­tion is not fore­most in his mind and has no bear­ing on his de­cision-mak­ing. That said, he hopes that his eth­ni­city and im­mig­rant back­ground help to bring a fresh per­spect­ive to the role.

Ohr and his wife, Ju­lie, a Hawaii nat­ive he met in law school, live in the Chica­go area with their three chil­dren. Al­though he “could barely get across the pool” in his youth, Ohr be­came an of­fi­cial for his chil­dren’s swim meets as a way of en­ga­ging in their activ­it­ies.

He also re­mains in con­tact with his own former coaches — his wrest­ling coach was one of his first calls upon re­turn­ing to Chica­go and he at­ten­ded Ohr’s swear­ing-in ce­re­mony — and says that “coaches have a sig­ni­fic­ant per­sua­sion in a child’s life — hope­fully good.”

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