The national division of the National Labor Relations Board denied the College Athletes Player Association from legally organizing as a union in a unanimous decision Monday. The board declined to rule on a landmark precedent set in a local-level decision affirming that scholarship football players are employees of their university and have the right to unionize. Thus, the Northwestern football players' petition to unionize has been dismissed.
This historic test case centered on Northwestern University's football program after former quarterback Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team petitioned to unionize in January of 2014. Following a decision by NLRB Regional Director Peter Ohr that deemed the program's scholarship football players to be employees of the University, Northwestern appealed to the national board. This decision contrasts Ohr's sentiment about the employment status of the University's football players.
From the ruling:
The Board has never asserted jurisdiction, or even been asked to assert jurisdiction, in a case involving scholarship football players or similarly situated individuals, and for the reasons stated above, we decline to do so in this case. Processing a petition for the scholarship players at this single institution under the circumstances presented here would not promote stability in labor relations. Moreover, recent changes, as well as calls for additional reforms, suggest that the situation of scholarship players may well change in the near future. For these reasons and the others set forth above, even if the scholarship players were statutory employees (which the Board does not here decide), we have concluded that it will not effectuate the policies of the Act to assert jurisdiction in this case.
Basically, the decision states that the NLRB does not have to decide whether Northwestern's football players are employees but decided to decline their petition to unionized because it would not truly fall under the National Labor Relations Act.
The decision also mentions potential competition issues with allowing players to unionize:
"Our decision is primarily premised on a finding that, because of the nature of sports leagues (namely the control exercised by the leagues over the individual teams) and the composition and structure of FBS football (in which the overwhelming majority of competitors are public colleges and universities over which the Board cannot assert jurisdiction), it would not promote stability in labor relations to assert jurisdiction in this case."
The results from a spring 2014 election that asked the football players whether they would support joining a union, will not be counted nor released. Wide speculation is that the players would have voted against unionizing.
Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage said in a statement that Northwestern is "pleased" by the decision.
"Northwestern's position remains that participation in athletics is part of the overall educational experience for our student-athletes, not a separate activity," he said. "Therefore, we intend to continue to work with our students, and others, to address the issues regarding the long-term health impact of playing intercollegiate sports, providing additional grant-in-aid support and providing academic support and opportunities for student-athletes."
Athletic Director Jim Phillips and Pat Fitzgerald commented on the ruling, emphasizing the role Northwestern plays in being a "national leader" in NCAA reform.
"Our young men chose to attend Northwestern to compete on the field at the highest level, earn a world-class education and prepare for the rest of their lives," Fitzgerald said. "They have displayed maturity beyond their years through this process, and the experience has unquestionably brought us closer together as a football family."
Ramogi Huma, CAPA's president, told Kevin Trahan of USA Today that although he doesn't agree with the ruling, he is still hopeful that unions can find their place in college athletics.
"We're surprised and a bit disappointed. Just to clarify, too, this doesn't close the door on unionization at private schools. This doesn't preclude various other teams and sports from bringing something. From our perspective, it's not a loss, but it's a loss of time."
Kain Colter also told Trahan that he was "disappointed" by the ruling, but that it wasn't an absolute defeat:
"What I will say is a lot of people want to make this out to be a huge loss, I don't think it's a huge loss. Obviously it's not the outcome that we wanted, but they didn't rule against us, which is huge.
"What I can say is kind of the whole legacy of this whole thing is for the first time I can remember you have players coming together and standing up for what they believe in."
Northwestern opens its 2015 season Sept. 5 against Stanford.