Feds decline to support unionization of Northwestern athletes

Student-athletes at Northwestern University will not be allowed to unionize after all, following a federal agency’s decision not to assert jurisdiction over the case.

In a unanimous decision Monday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dismissed a petition from the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) that sought to establish collective bargaining for Northwestern football players who receive “grant-in-aid” scholarships (which cover the full cost of attendance, including tuition, room and board, books, and other fees).

Significantly, though, the NLRB declined to rule on whether student-athletes are statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), leaving the door open to future reconsideration of the issue.

Instead, the Board merely held that “it would not promote stability in labor relations to assert jurisdiction in this case,” because the NLRB “does not have legal jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the roughly 125 FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision] teams.”

Even within the Big Ten conference, they note, Northwestern is the only school that falls under the NLRB’s purview, yet “asserting jurisdiction over the single team in this case would likely have ramifications for those other member teams,” which would exceed the Board’s mandate.

The unionization saga began in January 2014, when Northwestern football players filed a petition seeking recognition of their status as employees of the university, arguing that athletic scholarships constitute a form of compensation, particularly considering the profitability of top-tier college football programs.

The players scored an initial victory in March of that year, when the NLRB’s regional director in Chicago issued a finding supporting their claims over strong objections from the university, allowing the players to hold a vote on unionizing. The Board agreed to review that decision roughly a month later, however, and impounded the ballots cast during the election in anticipation of Monday’s ruling. Following the new ruling, those ballots will now be destroyed.

Alan Cubbage, Northwestern’s Vice President for University Relations, praised the NLRB’s decision in a press release, saying, “We believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.

“Northwestern considers its students who participate in NCAA Division I sports, including those who receive athletic scholarships, to be students, first and foremost,” Cubbage explained. “Northwestern's position remains that participation in athletics is part of the overall educational experience for our student-athletes, not a separate activity.”

At the same time, though, Cubbage also acknowledged that the unionization effort raised issues of legitimate concern to student athletes, such as “the long-term health impact of playing intercollegiate sports,” and vowed that the university is “committed to ensuring their health, safety and well-being and that they are provided with every resource possible to grow and develop as well-rounded individuals.”

Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation, told Campus Reform that the NLRB’s decision “is a welcome, albeit rare, instance in which the Obama Board majority declined to aggressively expand Big Labor’s forced unionism powers.”

“Unfortunately, there’s little reason to believe that this is anything but an isolated instance,” Semmens cautioned. “The NLRB is expected to issue a number of high-profile decisions over the next two weeks, and we fully expect that in those decisions the pro-union boss majority will resume their partisan push to the detriment of the rights of independent employees.”

Semmens was referring to the fact that three of the five members of the current Board were nominated by President Obama, while the other two were picked by Republican leaders, making it unlikely that the Northwestern decision will provide a bellwether for the Board’s future decisions.

The College Athletes Players Association, for its part, downplayed the defeat in a statement, seizing on the NLRB’s refusal to use the case to establish a precedent against unionization of student athletes in general.

“This is not a loss, but it is a loss of time,” observed 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 quarterback Kain Colter, who was the driving force behind the unionization effort, agreed that the delay is “disappointing,” but praised his teammates for “standing up for justice” and bringing national attention to their grievances.

“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,” Colter said, adding, “[t]he fight for justice will continue and college athletes everywhere should take note.”

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