NLRB Ends Northwestern Football Players’ Attempt at Unionization

A unanimous decision by the National Labor Relations Board on Monday ended the Northwestern University scholarship football players’ bid to unionize without addressing the key issue that has plagued collegiate athletics for so many years: whether college athletes are employees and entitled to such compensation.

The case was brought before the five-member board for review after an NLRB regional director found that the football players who put in “more hours than ‘many undisputed full-time employees’ work” are employees and thus can unionize. According to the ruling last year, 85 scholarship players were required to clock in as many as 60 hours a week during off-season and 50 hours during the season. Northwestern appealed the case arguing that the players were primarily students.

Rather than determine whether grant-in-aid scholarship players are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRB exercised its discretion NOT to assert jurisdiction in this case because to do so would not effectuate the policies of the NLRA to promote stability in labor relations. The board noted that the NCAA exercises a substantial degree of control over the individual member Division 1 FBS football schools, including the terms and conditions under which the scholarship players practice and play.  As the overwhelming majority of competitors in FBS Football are public colleges and universities over which the board cannot assert jurisdiction. Northwestern University is not a public university, thus the NLRB determined that asserting jurisdiction over Northwestern would likely have ramifications for the other member teams.  Therefore, the NLRB unanimously decided that it would not promote stability in labor relations to assert jurisdiction over this case and dismissing the student athletes’ representation petition.

The board’s ruling, however, is narrowly tailored to the specific facts of the Northwestern football players’ case.

Though on paper it is a loss for the Northwestern student-athletes, many see the benefits of what this attempt at unionization have brought, including the spearhead behind the movement, Kain Colter. Colter stated in an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines that :

“It’s definitely not a loss.” Since we started this movement, a lot of positive changes have come from this — the introduction of four-year scholarships, increased stipends, maybe better medical coverage, the lifting of food restrictions. A lot of the things that we’ve been fighting for have been adopted. But there is a lot of room to go.”

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