The Slatest

Ruling: Northwestern Football Players Can’t Form Union, May or May Not Be Employees

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who was one of the leaders of the unionization drive, in an October 2013 game.

Matthew Holst/Getty

Northwestern’s college football team may not form a union because negotiating terms that would not apply to players at other schools “would not promote stability in labor relations,” the National Labor Relations Board ruled today in a decision that does not address the question of whether college athletes in big-money sports should be considered employees.

The board’s three Democrats and two Republicans issued the ruling, which overturned a previous decision by a regional NLRB official, unanimously. The bid to unionize was organized by a group called the College Athletes Players Association; players on the Northwestern team voted on whether to unionize in April 2014 but the votes were never formally counted while appeals were pending and will now be destroyed. In the meantime, a number of top schools have begun guaranteeing athletic scholarships for four years (instead of one) and giving athletes extra annual “cost of attendance” stipends in the $3,000 range.

In its ruling, the NLRB emphasized that a Northwestern football union would be unlike players’ unions in professional sports because Northwestern’s team is only one of 128 that play in the NCAA’s top division, most of which are operated by public universities whose employees are not subject to NLRB oversight. (Northwestern is a private school.) “We are declining jurisdiction only in this case involving the football players at Northwestern University,” the decision says. “We therefore do not address what the Board’s approach might be to a petition for all FBS scholarship.”

The Board’s decision is binding and cannot be appealed.