NLRB Rebuffs Northwestern Football Players' Unionization Bid

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

August 18, 2015

In a case that sparked nationwide debate, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has declined jurisdiction and, therefore, dismissed an attempt by Northwestern University football players to unionize. The players claimed they are university employees and should be allowed to form a union and collectively bargain.

While the NLRB did not determine in its ruling if scholarship players are statutory employees, it held unanimously that asserting jurisdiction would not promote stability in labor relations. This dispute marked the first-ever union representation petition involving college athletes of any kind before the NLRB. A decision in the players' favor could have invited future unionization efforts at other universities.

In March 2014, the NLRB's Regional Director in Chicago issued a landmark ruling after finding that Northwestern's scholarship football players were "employees" based on the number of hours they spent practicing and playing each week. The Regional Director also pointed to several aspects of the university-player relationship to show how Northwestern received a benefit from the players' services.

Following that ruling, Michigan passed a law making it illegal for student-athletes at Michigan's public universities and colleges to join a union. Ohio passed a similar measure declaring that college athletes are not considered public employees under Ohio law and, therefore, have no right to collectively bargain.

While the NLRB's ruling yesterday represents a victory for Northwestern, the decision itself notes that it is narrowly focused to apply only to the players in this particular case. As a result, the NLRB left the door open for it to exercise jurisdiction in future cases involving scholarship athletes in other universities.

In Northwestern's brief before the NLRB, the university argued that giving players the right to collectively bargain "would create chaos in college athletics."