The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has unanimously agreed that it will not act upon the push by Northwestern University athletes to unionize. The seven-page decision issued by the board means that after an 18-month legal battle by football players on scholarship at Northwestern University, their petition will be dismissed and their efforts to form a union will end, at least for now.
Although the regional director of the NLRB, Peter Sung Ohr, had said in March 2014 that the Northwestern University players were indeed employees of the university and therefore allowed the right to organize, the board, which consists of five members, did not speak to that determination when making their ruling. Instead, the board referred to its duty given by the National Labor Relations Act to ensure stability and dependability in labor environments across the board.
Because the NLRB does not have authority over public schools, of which the majority (108 out of 125) of the NCAA’s Big Ten Conference schools are, the board ruled that any intervention in allowing Northwestern University athletes to open up labor talks with the university would not promote the stable labor environment the board was created to foster. The ruling also indicates that college athletes will only be allowed to form unions if all of the schools in a particular conference could also do so; a scenario that seems implausible due to the varying state laws which govern particular schools throughout the NCAA.
Although declining to intervene on the behalf of student athletes in this case, the NLRB did refer to a decision during the NCAA meeting in January to bar coaches and universities from taking scholarships away from athletes due to reasons related to athletics. In the past, sports scholarships had been reviewed annually for renewal. With the new rule, athletes who earn a four-year scholarship will in most cases be guaranteed four years of schooling. In its decision, the board noted that although they have chosen to not take action now, their decision could be outweighed by any “changes in the treatment of scholarship players” which may occur.
For their part, Northwestern University released a statement expressing their satisfaction with the decision of the board. The decision means that ballots cast by players in April 2014 as part of a union election, which took place after a regional director of the NLRB gave the go-ahead for the players to unionize, and which have been sealed since the vote, “will not be counted,” said Northwestern’s vice president for university relations, Allan K. Cubbage.
The NCAA also had a stake in the board’s decision and had made it clear that they opposed the idea that student-athletes might be considered employees of the universities for which they play. A statement by Donald Remy, chief legal officer of the NCAA, made reference to the scholarships, meals and support provided to student athletes by the association, saying that with the ruling by the NLRB, the NCAA can continue to assist the athletes in these ways while maintaining a stable college sports environment without the unknown trouble that might occur during a unionization effort.
The College Athlete Players Association expressed disappointment with the board’s ruling that Northwestern University players may not seek to unionize, but noted that other schools have not been prevented by this ruling from bringing their own petitions. The Players Association believes that because student athletes are risking their lives, and their future livelihoods, to play for the universities which have offered them scholarships, they are due medical and other benefits just as workers in other industries.
By Jennifer Pfalz
USA Today: NLRB Rules Northwestern Players Can’t Unionize
The Washington Post: Universities Relieved at Labor Board’s Ruling in Northwestern Football Case
ESPN: NLRB Decision a Total Loss for Football Player-Unionization Effort
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Guardian Liberty Voice: Northwestern Players Win Bid to Form Union