Today, a unanimous decision by the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) determined Northwestern football players could not unionize.
The five-member Board emphasized the Northwestern case involved novel and unique circumstances. The Board has never before been asked to assert jurisdiction over college athletics of any kind. It determined that scholarship players do not fit within any analytical framework the Board has used previously in cases involving students or athletes. After finding that the Board has never before asserted jurisdiction over student scholarship athletes (or other similarly situated individuals), the Board declined to assert jurisdiction here.
Thus, the Board did not rule on the essential question of whether scholarship players can, in fact, unionize.
The Board noted that academic institutions banded together to form the NCAA to set rules and standards governing competition of scholarship athletes. It reasoned that allowing one team to collectively bargain would not promote stability and could upset the balance in college sports.
The NLRB’s decision is a blow for college sports teams hoping to unionize. At the end of the day, the NLRB agreed with Northwestern’s argument that academics and scholarships come before the student athletes’ responsibilities to the team.
What this means to you
The Northwestern decision indicates the NLRB is unwilling to consider cases involving scholarship players, though it left open the possibility that another group of student athletes may raise this issue again. At least one state, Connecticut, has passed its own legislation allowing student athletes to unionize. On the other hand, Ohio enacted legislation stating college athletes could not unionize. Consider how your student athletes may approach this issue in light of today’s ruling and developing state laws.