Northwestern University football players lost a bid to unionize on Monday when the U.S. National Labor Relations Board dismissed their case, in a setback for elite U.S. student athletes seeking a chunk of the riches generated by college sports.
The case had spurred a national debate over whether college athletes are truly amateurs when colleges and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) benefit handsomely from ticket sales, television contracts and licensing deals.
But in the end, the NLRB’s ruling turned on a more technical question: whether it should rule on a case that would overwhelmingly affect state-run colleges and universities, institutions over which it has no jurisdiction.
The Evanston, Illinois-based university is one of just 17 private members of the overwhelmingly state-run 125 teams grouped in NCAA Division I football.
By refraining from deciding whether or not college athletes are employees, the labor agency left the door open for other college athletes from bringing cases for unions in the future.
Northwestern’s football program generated revenue of $235 million and $159 million in expenses from 2003 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The NCAA reported $872 million in revenue in 2012.
Weighing in on Northwestern’s program would inevitably affect the state-run schools, over which the labor agency does not have jurisdiction, the NLRB said.
Employment attorneys warned a decision in the players’ favor could have led to a unionization wave in higher-education reaching beyond team sports.
Northwestern football players had argued they should be considered employees and thus should have a right to collective bargaining agreements.
“Asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league,” the board, comprising three Democrats and two Republicans, said in a unanimous decision.
A group of players – spearheaded by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter – filed a petition to the board in January 2014 seeking a union to negotiate collectively.
The NCAA currently prohibits players from earning income beyond their academic scholarships and nominal stipends that cover the cost of college attendance.
Northwestern University maintains that all its athletes are “students, first and foremost” and that participating in sports was part of an “overall educational experience.”
“We believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes,” the university said in a statement, adding that it was pleased with the NLRB’s decision.
The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which brought the complaint, said the ruling only postponed the inevitable in terms of allowing student athletes to unionize.
“This is not a loss, but it is a loss of time,” former University of California-Los Angeles football player Ramogi Huma said in a statement. “It delays players securing the leverage they need to protect themselves from traumatic brain injury, sports-related medical expenses, and other gaps in protections.”
Colter and Huma co-founded CAPA, a first-of-its-kind union to represent student athletes in sports programs.
The NCAA said it was continually working to improve conditions for college athletes.
“This ruling allows us to continue to make progress for the college athlete without risking the instability to college sports that the NLRB recognized might occur under the labor petition,” said the NCAA’s chief legal officer Donald Remy in a statement.
The NLRB regional director who handled the case noted that Northwestern football players each receive scholarship assistance worth about $61,000 per year, and in exchange spend 40 to 50 hours a week during the regular season practicing, playing and traveling to games.
The case is Northwestern University, National Labor Relations Board, No. 13-RC-121359.
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