To Unionize, or Not to Unionize? Northwestern Football Players Cast Historic Vote Following Controversial NLRB Ruling

On April 25, Northwestern University’s scholarship football players voted on whether to form the first union for college athletes. This came on the heels of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that the university’s scholarship football players were employees, and that they (as workers) had the right to form a union and were entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.  The NLRB agreed with the players on almost every point made at last month’s hearing, including acknowledging that athletes spend well in excess of the weekly hour allotment allowed by the NCAA on football-related activities. Northwestern officials strongly oppose the formation of a union and top university officials urged the players to vote “no.” 

The results of the vote will not have an immediate impact. The votes will be impounded and may not be counted for months pending the University’s appeal of the aforementioned NLRB decision. In any event, a majority of “yes” votes by the players is needed to certify the union. (A total of 76 players voted.) If the players vote to unionize, the process could continue with a possible union demand for bargaining. The university would, in theory, be forced to bargain with the College Athletes Players Association, which would represent the players. The university is likely to refuse to bargain, a decision that would push the dispute into the Federal Appeals Court. All of this could extend the dispute by as long as 18 months. 

The March decision from NLRB official Peter Ohr sent shockwaves through the world of college sports and prompted criticism from the NCAA and Northwestern. Some have suggested that schools should consider the elimination of Division I football before seriously considering the idea of bargaining with a union of student-athletes. Numerous labor experts expect the board to agree with the earlier ruling that the players are employees and entitled to form a union. The players say their priorities are to guarantee compensation related to concussion-related injuries for former players and to allow current players to receive compensation for commercial sponsorships.

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