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NLRB: Northwestern football team’s rules were ‘unlawful’

Social media use, media relations among topics altered following NLRB advice

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON -- A number of policies in the Northwestern football program’s rules handbook have been changed to comply with national labor standards, following a National Labor Relations Board Advice Memorandum issued in September.

This news was first reported by ESPN’s Lester Munson.

The document asserts that Northwestern’s football program violated provisions in the National Labor Relations Act by restricting the rights of the scholarship football players through various team policies.

Although the national level of the NLRB refused to issue a ruling last August after regional director Peter Ohr found that Northwestern’s scholarship football players were employees and could unionize, for purposes of the memorandum, the document explicitly refers to the scholarship football players as employees and Northwestern as the employer.

The NLRB dismissed the formal charge (brought by labor law activist David Rosenfeld) against Northwestern, as the football program has changed some of its policies and notified its scholarship players about those changes in accordance with the NLRA.

Changes to the team rules include those to social media policies, health information, dispute resolution and media relations:

  • The program changed its social media policy so that football players would no longer be “regularly monitored.”
  • Football players will be allowed to talk generally about medical issues and concerns with those outside the program, without mentioning specific players or injuries.
  • Northwestern changed its entire “dispute resolution procedure” because it prohibited discussions of “workplace grievances” with fellow players and “third parties.”
  • Football players are now allowed to speak to media members directly on their own accord, without necessarily having to refer media inquiries to the athletic communications office.

The following are the exact wording changes for various sections of the football handbook, according to the NLRB’s Advice Memorandum:

Social Media Policy

[W]e are concerned about... protecting the image and reputation of Northwestern University and its Department of Athletics and Recreation. . . .

Publicly posted information on social networking websites can be seen may be regularly monitored by any person with a smart phone or internet access, including individuals a number of sources within Northwestern University (e.g., Athletics Department, Student Affairs, University Police). . . .

Northwestern student-athletes should be very careful when using online social networking sites and keep in mind that sanctions may be imposed if these sites are used improperly or depict inappropriate, embarrassing harassing, unlawful or dangerous behaviors such as full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment, unlawful activity or any content that violates Northwestern University, Athletics Department or student-athlete codes of conduct and/or state or federal laws.

Do not post any information, photos or other items online that contain full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment or unlawful activity could embarrass you, your family, your team, the Athletics Department or Northwestern University.
Examples of inappropriate or offensive behaviors posted on social networking sites may include....Photos meant to harass, bully or demean the individuals included in the photo by offensive reference to their race, sex, disability, age, national origin, religion or any other status protected by law or Northwestern University policy.

Sports Medicine & Player Policy Communication Rule

1. Confidential: Never discuss any aspects of the team, the physical condition of any players, planned strategies, etc. with anyone. The team is a family and what takes place on the field, in meetings or in the locker room stays within this family.

Protecting Personal Health Information: Based on privacy considerations associated with medical conditions and the need to ensure that teams with whom we compete do not obtain medical information about our student-athletes, you should not reveal the medical conditions or injuries to persons outside the Northwestern University football team and staff. This restriction does not apply to information that is generally known and available to the public, nor does it prohibit student athletes from discussing general medical issues and concerns with third parties provided that such discussions do not identify the physical or medical condition or injury of specific or named student athletes.

2. Keep our information private.

Dispute Resolution Procedure

[Entire rule eliminated from handbook]

Within the intercollegiate athletic program, all decisions directly related to the playing field are the province of the head coach, and all decisions are final. In the event a student-athlete has a complaint or grievance concerning personal rights and relationships to the athletic program, the following procedure may be used:

1. The student-athlete should discuss the issue with [director of football operations] Cody Cejda.

2. If the issue is not resolved, the student-athlete and captain(s), if applicable, meet with the head coach.

3. If the issue continues to be unresolved, the student-athlete meets with the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Intercollegiate Services. At this point, the student-athlete may bring another person to the meeting as an observer. A written summary of the meeting will be prepared and submitted to the Athletics Director and the student-athlete. The student- athlete may also appeal directly to the Athletics Director.

4. The Faculty Committee on Athletics and Recreation (CAR) is the next and usually final step. CAR’s decision may be appealed to the President of Northwestern University, Morton O. Shapiro.

Athletic Communications for Student Athletes


**** PLEASE NOTE: As responsible student athletes, you may directly speak with members of the media if you choose to do so. You should never agree to an interview unless the interview has been arranged by the athletic communications office. All media request for interviews with student athletes must be made through athletic communications. If you are contacted directly by the media (this includes The Daily Northwestern or any other student media outlet), you have the option of referring the media representative you should politely, but firmly, redirect the reporter to the athletic communications office for a response or to personally speak with the media representative. Please be aware that Wwe will never give out your cell phone number to the media. This protects your privacy and as well as avoids interruptions of your time. ****

In dealing with the media, you should be aware of and consider the following:


Be positive when talking about your teammates, coaches and team. Share credit for your success by talking about the contributions of Praise your teammates and use their names. Remember that Eevery great running back needs a good offensive line. Every high scorer needs teammates who can pass the ball. Talking about the great work of others shows you have confidence in your own role and the value of your own contributions, so you’re not afraid of letting someone else have their moment of glory, too. Avoid the negatives, as they breed discontent and trouble.