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National Labor Relations Board Dismisses Ruling to Allow College Athletes to Unionize

The labor dispute goes to the heart of American college sports.
Northwestern football players gather during practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Kenosha, Wi. Jeffrey Phelps / AP

The federal agency that regulates unions on Monday threw out a request by football players at Northwestern University to unionize.

The unanimous ruling by the National Labor Relations Board was a victory for the college sports establishment, which strenuously opposed the effort to allow college players to engage in collective bargaining with their schools.

In March 2014, a regional NLRB official said the scholarship players at Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois, were effectively university employees and had the right to hold a unionization election.

But the full NLRB said Monday that such a finding would not meet a key objective of federal law — promoting stability in labor relations.

The decision on Monday noted that the student players have a point in their favor, in that NCAA Division I football "does resemble a professional sport in a number of relevant ways," most notably that college football is a major money maker.

But because the NLRB has no jurisdiction over public sector employers, any decision to permit the Northwestern players to unionize would not apply to 108 of the 125 colleges and universities in Division I football.

Northwestern football players run through drills at practice at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside campus on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015, in Kenosha, Wi.Jeffrey Phelps / AP

"In other contexts, the Board's assertion of jurisdiction helps promote uniformity and stability, but in this case, asserting jurisdiction would not have that effect," the ruling said.

What's more, the NLRB said, conditions for the Northwestern players appear to be improving, suggesting "that the situation of scholarship players may well change in the future."

As a technical matter, the board's ruling did not reach the merits of the students’ claim that they were employees. The NLRB said it would keep that question open, though it is difficult to see how it would reach the opposite conclusion if the question were to arise again from athletes in state-run schools.

Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback wo led the effort to unionize said the ruling was not a total loss. Instead, he said, the NLRB simply "punted the ball down the field."

In a written statement, Northwestern thanked its football players for "bringing national attention to these important issues" but said forming a union and engaging in collective bargaining “are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns."