NLRB says Northwestern players cannot Unionize, but leaves door open to efforts to expand rights of College Athletes

Last year, we reported on student athletes’ efforts to gain Union representation.  In sum, a NLRB regional director upheld the right of scholarship players at Northwestern University to hold a Union election.  The unionization efforts sought guaranteed coverage of sports-related medical expenses, sponsorship compensation, an increase in scholarship value and a trust fund to help former players finish their degrees.

However, in late August 2015, after reviewing the Region’s determination, the NLRB declined to assert jurisdiction in this case.  In other words, the Board chose not to assert its official power to make decisions, and dismissed the Union’s representation petition requesting an election.

The NLRB chose not to assert jurisdiction because it reasoned that doing so in this case would not meet a key objective of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA): promoting stability in labor relations.  The Board determined that it would not promote stable labor relations to allow one school the ability to unionize, while others (including public schools that the NLRB does not govern) could not.

While the decision is a setback to unionization efforts, it is not a total loss.  First, the decision only applied to the football team at Northwestern University—it does not foreclose the possibility of other revenue-producing student sport teams petitioning for Union representation.  Second, under the NLRA, “employees” have the right to form a Union.  Because the Board did not reach a decision on the important issue of whether student athletes are considered “employees,” the decision leaves the door open to other college athletes winning the right to unionize.

We will continue to provide updates on the status of student athletes’ unionization efforts.

By Caroline Cohen | October 13, 2015

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