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Why a College Football Team Can't Unionize

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 18, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The National Labor Relations Board ruled this week that football players for Northwestern University do not have the right to unionize. The players, arguing that they were employees of the university, were campaigning for guaranteed scholarships, improved medical protections for players, and a fund that would allow players to continue to pursue their educations after their athletic eligibility expired.

This ruling overturns a previous decision from an NLRB regional office in Chicago which had originally granted the players, under the banner of the College Athletes Players Association, the right to form a union. Although this appears to be the end of the fight for Northwestern players specifically, the decision doesn't foreclose the issue of college athletes organizing a union.

Punting on Second Down

What the NLRB did, specifically, was decline to exercise jurisdiction over the players' petition, meaning the petition could not be granted. The Board's rationale was that, considering most college football teams are run by public universities which aren't subject to the National Labor Relations Act (which gives the NLRB authority), allowing Northwestern players (who compete at a private university) "would not promote stability in labor relations."

The Board also noted pending litigation regarding athlete pay that could mean that "the situation of scholarship players may well change in the near future." The NLRB essentially said that it wanted no part of sorting out the mess that is college athletics, especially with the NCAA already neck-deep in it as a pseudo-regulatory body.

Overtime Rules

The NLRB decision doesn't leave Northwestern players anywhere to appeal the ruling, so their attempt to be recognized as employees in order to unionize is over. But because the ruling only applies to Northwestern players (and presumably those at other private universities), the issue of whether athletes at a public university or across several universities could organize remains unsettled.

The Northwestern decision was so narrowly tailored that it's possible that college athletes could be considered employees under federal labor law in the future. Meaning: a college players union is still a possibility.

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