Northwestern football players cannot attempt to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board announced Monday in a long-awaited decision that dismisses the petition.
The five-member national board disagreed unanimously with a previous ruling by NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr from March 2014. Northwestern had appealed Ohr's ruling, which came to two major conclusions: (1) Athletic scholarships equate to compensation in exchange for working for the school, and (2) coaches have strict control over college athletes.
Instead, the NLRB determined that certifying the players' petition “would not promote uniformity and stability in labor relations” and collective bargaining could potentially upset the balance of competition. The decision is another big victory for the NCAA, which had strongly supported Northwestern's appeal against employee status. If the initial NLRB ruling had been affirmed, the precedent would have held for all private universities regardless of whether Northwestern players formed a union.
Northwestern players cast ballots in April 2014 to vote on whether they favored a union. The ballots were immediately impounded pending the NLRB decision and now will never be counted. Northwestern administrators and coaches urged players not to unionize, and it's possible their position prevailed with the players.
The NLRB's ruling on Monday did not decide whether the Northwestern players are employees. Instead, the board wrote "we address this case in the absence of explicit congressional direction regarding whether the Board should exercise jurisdiction. We conclude that asserting jurisdiction in this case would not serve to promote stability in labor relations."
Northwestern praised the decision and said in a statement, "We applaud our players for bringing national attention to these important issues, but we believe strongly that unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes." Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said in a statement that his players "displayed maturity beyond their years through this process, and the experience has unquestionably brought us closer together as a football family."
The petition had been filed by the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). Ramogi Huma, who led the unionization efforts with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, described the ruling as "obviously disappointing. For us, it's not a loss, but it's a loss of time. It's a delay. In the meantime, players don't have the leverage they need to protect themselves."
Huma pointed out that the NLRB decision does not prohibit other scholarship football players from attempting to unionize. Huma declined to say if he will attempt to unionize again and said he has no regrets about the efforts.