In a unanimous decision Monday, the National Labor Relations Board dismissed a petition by Northwestern University football players seeking to form the first ever players’ union in college sports.
While the NLRB did not formally rule on the central issue of whether the players are in fact employees, electing not to assert jurisdiction, the decision is a serious blow to the athletes’ unionization effort and did not give the Northwestern players the opportunity to appeal.
“This is not a loss, but it is a loss of time,” Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association, a United Steelworkers-supported group that sought to represent the players, said in a statement. “It delays players securing the leverage they need to protect themselves from traumatic brain injury, sports-related medical expenses, and other gaps in protections.”
NLRB officials told reporters on a conference call Monday that the unprecedented nature of the case had an impact on the board’s decision, as did their hesitation to issue a ruling that would impact public universities in addition to private schools like Northwestern. “The board decided that allowing one team to collectively bargain would not promote stability in the labor market and could upset competitive balance in college sports,” the New York Times reported.
The Northwestern unionization effort formally began in January 2014 when a group of football players, led by former quarterback Kain Colter and supported by CAPA, announced that they had signed union cards and wanted to be recognized as university employees. Their petition was approved by the Chicago regional chapter of the NLRB in March of last year — a decision that was disputed by the university. The NLRB agreed to review the case in April.
At the heart of the unionization push was the players’ desire to have a seat at the table in the discussions that directly impact them. Considering the vast sums of money in collegiate athletics, particularly football, the players argued that they should be afforded better protections — specifically in the form of long-term health care, increased scholarships, and a trust fund players could access to finish their degrees once their eligibility had expired. On these issues and others, the players believed the NCAA was failing to look out for their best interests.
“It’s almost like a dictatorship,” Colter said of the NCAA last January. “We want someone who is going to be looking out for us.”
Both Northwestern University and the NCAA have maintained that the players are student-athletes and not employees with collective bargaining rights. “This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal officer, said last year. “Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”
Reacting to Monday’s decision, Colter said he was disappointed but proud of his teammates for taking a stand on the issue. “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,” he said in a statement. “The fight for justice will continue and college athletes everywhere should take note. A few dozen 18–21 year-old Northwestern football players joined together to challenge an unjust system and are forcing change. It’s simple. As players stand up, injustice falls down.”
Northwestern officials said they were “pleased” with the NLRB’s decision, adding, “we applaud our players for bringing national attention to these important issues, but we believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”