The National Labor Relations Board has officially dismissed a petition by Northwestern football players seeking to unionize. In effect, this action rejects their claim to be university employees with the right to collectively bargain. In a unanimous decision that signaled a big win for the college sports establishment, the board turned down the assertion that it should have jurisdiction in this case, upholding one of the N.C.A.A.’s underlying principles: that college athletes first and foremost students, not employees.
Yet the board did not rule directly on the underlying question in the dispute — whether the players, who put in long hours on football and bring in millions of dollars for Northwestern, count as university employees. Instead, it stated that the novelty of the petition and the wide-ranging impact it could have on college sports would have been detrimental to “stability in labor relations.”
A case involving college football players or college athletes of any kind has never come before the board in a capacity requiring them to assert jurisdiction. And according to the seven-page decision: “Even if scholarship players were regarded as analogous to players for professional sports teams who are considered employees for purposes of collective bargaining, such bargaining has never involved a bargaining unit consisting of a single team’s players.”
Northwestern University strongly encouraged its players to vote no on the proposition to unionize in advance of last year’s secret ballot election. In a statement released by spokesman Alan Cubbage, the university explained: “We believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes. We are pleased that the N.L.R.B. has agreed with the university’s position.”
Across college sports, many other owners are cheering the ruling. The commissioners of 31 of the largest conferences released a statement applauging the N.L.R.B. decision, and Donald Remy, the N.C.A.A.’s chief legal officer, said it would allow the association “to continue to make progress for the college athlete without risking the instability to college sports that the N.L.R.B. recognized might occur under the labor petition.”
Yet for players and the broader union movement in college sports, the decision is a blow. This movement has been led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and supported by the College Athletes Players Association, a United Steelworkers-supported group that offered to represent the players. The group has the option to sue the N.L.R.B. to force it to exert jurisdiction in the case, but such a rare maneuver would be akin to a Hail Mary pass.
President of the College Athletes Players Association, Ramogi Huma, said he was disappointed by the decision. However, he did not rule out future attempts at unionization at other colleges. “It’s notable [that the board] didn’t rule that players aren’t employees,” he said. “The door is still open.”
In fact, the board wrote that its decision applied only to the Northwestern case — where there was no precedent established for graduate teaching assistants or student janitors — and thus left open the possibility of revisiting the issue if other college athletes brought a similar case.
In announcing the union push last year, Colter explained that players wanted to equalize the balance of power between themselves, their universities and the N.C.A.A. He argued that with the immense time demands on players, and the ever-growing revenues from college sports, players deserved much more say in issues like safety and long-term health care.