Northwestern Football Players Union Drive Fails

Last year football players at Northwestern University took the first step toward organizing, and asked the National Labor Relations Board to determine whether or not they were employees of the university and had the right to try to form a union.

This had the potential to change how academic sports operated. While matters like these are complicated, in a general sense if these football players could organize it would quickly get difficult for other schools (and sports) to justify a system of free labor, which is arguably exactly what’s going on in collegiate sports.

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Well, if it’s going to happen it’s not going to happen through Northwestern’s football team. According to an article by Jamie Altman at USA Today:

In a unanimous decision Monday morning, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) dismissed a petition created by Northwestern University football players to unionize. The decision is seen as a victory for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), as the NLRB’s decision essentially denies the players’ request to become university employees.

Although the NLRB did not rule directly on the core question at the center of the petition — whether college athletes are student employees — it “declined to assert jurisdiction,” which marks a major setback for the movement.

Apparently the reason for this is that the board believes that “asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability due to the nature and structure of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.” And that’s because the board does not have “jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities.”

This reasoning is a little questionable. State labor boards oversee public colleges, but certainly regular employees of private colleges (faculty and staff) can form unions overseen by the NLRB, without facing labor instability due to state labor boards having jurisdiction over public employees.

Northwestern, of course, is private. But since most of its sports rivals are public, “Asserting jurisdiction over the single team in this case would likely have ramifications for those other members teams,” the board said.

Well, right, that was the point, to promote labor organization of college athletes. That’s how labor organization works, by creating strength in numbers.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer