NLRB Blocks the Wildcats' Hail Mary Pass to Start a Union
Policy + Politics

NLRB Blocks the Wildcats' Hail Mary Pass to Start a Union


The National Labor Relations Board on Monday punted on a petition by Northwestern University scholarship football players seeking to form a union, effectively overturning an earlier ruling that would have allowed the players — and eventually other college athletes — to unionize.

The 2014 ruling by an NLRB regional director sent shock waves through the world of college athletics. Northwestern, a successful football program but far from the largest in the nation, brings in revenues of some $30 million per year in ticket sales, broadcast contracts and other arrangements. After expenses, the program netted $8 million in the 2012-2013 season, and $76 million over 10 years.

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Last year’s ruling found that the players, who receive tuition, expenses, and room and board in exchange for meeting various requirements, were effectively employed by the school. It appeared to set a precedent under which players at Northwestern and, eventually, various major sports conferences across the National Collegiate Athletic Association, could band together in an effort to capture some of the revenue they help raise for their schools. Players receive tuition, expenses, and room and board in exchange for meeting various requirements, but are restricted from retaining agents and profiting from the use of their own names and images.

The five-member NLRB on Monday set at ease the hearts of college athletics directors across the country with a unanimous decision in which they overturned the earlier ruling. The five members (for the record, alumni of Cornell, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Duquesne and Rice) declined to rule on the question of whether college athletes are employees, instead determining that the NLRB simply doesn’t have clear jurisdiction and that, even if it did, it might not further its mission by exercising it. The board stressed that its decision “does not preclude a reconsideration of this issue in the future.”

“We address this case in the absence of explicit congressional direction regarding whether the Board should exercise jurisdiction,” they wrote. “We conclude that asserting jurisdiction in this case would not serve to promote stability in labor relations.”

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The board also pointed out the difficulty of ruling on the “labor” practices of a single school in what amounts to a large network of institutions that are in significant respects governed by the NCAA’s rule. The members appeared at least sympathetic to the possibility that a larger group representing all players in a particular NCAA sport — modeled after the National Football League Players Association, might have different standing.

Executives of the fledgling College Athletes Players Association said that they were disappointed by the finding but not deterred. “This is not a loss, but it is a loss of time,” said CAPA President Ramogi Huma. “It delays players securing the leverage they need to protect themselves from traumatic brain injury, sports-related medical expenses and other gaps in protections.”

Former Northwestern football player Kain Colter, a key figure in the unionization fight, agreed. “[I]t imposes a delay in this issue, but I am proud of my teammates for standing up for justice. Their courage has provided a national platform to expose gaps in player protections and pressure colleges and conferences to take steps toward better health coverage, four-year scholarships, concussion reform, and even stipends. 

“The fight for justice will continue and college athletes everywhere should take note. A few dozen 18-21 year-old Northwestern football players joined together to challenge an unjust system and are forcing change. It's simple. As players stand up, injustice falls down.”