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College Athlete Union Ruling: It's Not Over Yet

Brian Young's picture
Aug 18, 2015

In a historic ruling, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) chose to dismiss the case of Northwestern football players who tried to form a union. The case hinged on whether or not the board believed that the football players were students or employees of the university. If the players were deemed employees then they would be permitted to organize their union.

In the unanimous decision, the board declined to exert its jurisdiction in the case. This means that the board upheld a core principal of the NCAA: that athletes are students not employees. While the board did not rule on whether or not the players are actually employees of the university, it is seen as a setback for the organizing of college athletes. The NLRB also said that since only one team was coming forward to attempt to organize, it would not promote stability in the collegiate labor market, which the board said is the goal of US Labor Law. It could also upset the competitive balance of college sports. The NLRB also noted that no league had ever had only one team try to organize. They also noted that they have no jurisdiction over state schools, which make up 85% of college football teams. This means that should a case come before the NLRB, involving the majority of schools, the NLRB would not be able rule on the case. 

The case came before the NLRB after a NLRB regional director in Chicago ruled last year that the players were employees of the university and thus had the right to organize. After that decision, 76 eligible players held a vote to certify the union. An appeal from the university prevented those votes from being counted, and they are currently impounded and will not be counted. In fact, they will be destroyed. But why?

The players were attempting to join the College Athletes Players Association, an affiliate of the United Steel Workers.  Their goals for organizing included player safety, reducing head injuries and long term health care.

 The board had previously ruled in 2004, that teaching assistants at Brown University were primarily students and could not bargain collectively.  Northwestern, used this rational to appeal the ruling.  That ruling is now under review, after graduate students attempting to unionize in New York City appealed. 

While the players at Northwestern will not be able to form their union, the effort has brought change to the NCAA.  Last year, the NCAA cleared the way for the 5 major conferences to offer their students increased stipends.  The Southeastern Conference (SEC), for example, will now offer students a $3,000-$5,000 stipend on top of their scholarship covering tuition, books, room and board.  However, students are still not covered for long term health issues that may result from the 4 years that the players dedicate to the university.  A 2013 study found that college athletes in football and basketball at the top colleges were losing out on $6.2 billion since they are forbidden to be paid. 

The players are not allowed to appeal the NLRB decision but we have a very good feeling that this will not be the last time we hear of this issue. The NCAA looks bad and regardless of what the NLRB rules, collegiate athletes getting exploited by their respective schools will find ways to make change happen with or without the governments help.

Isn't that how the American Labor Movement started in the first place?

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