Are athletes also employees? NLRB punts on decision

Cites uneven playing field as major reason

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Monday released its decision to reject the attempt by Northwestern University (NU) football players to unionize.

The five-member board took more than a year to reach a unanimous decision that it was "declining to assert jurisdiction" because allowing athletes at a private institution to unionize would not "promote stability in labor markets."

However, the ruling left open the question of whether athletes are employees or not.

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A regional board ruled last spring that NU footballers qualified as employees and could form a union. NU appealed the decision, arguing that the decision disregarded evidence that players are more students than athletes, and the national NLRB announced in April 2014 that it would review the case.

The national board's decision is based on the fact that NU is a private institution and that only athletes at other private schools would be able to unionize as well.

Collective-bargaining rights are governed by state laws at public colleges and universities.

The board ruled that allowing some but not all student-athletes to unionize would disrupt the competitive playing field. It also referenced developments—such as guaranteeing four years of an athletic scholarship—that address some of the concerns raised by student-athletes.

Experts 'expected a decision'

Many experts say they are surprised at the lack of a true ruling.

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"Those of use in the industry expected a decision" on whether or not student-athletes are employees, says Warren Zola, an adjunct professor at Boston College and sports law expert.

"I was incredibly surprised for the NLRB to punt on this issue, especially after it took 17 months to consider," Zola says.

Similar efforts will likely fail, says William Gould, an emeritus professor of law at Stanford University and former labor-relations board chair. 

However, the College Athletes Players Association said there are still opportunities for future attempts to unionize.


Northwestern officials released a statement that praised the NLRB's decision and reiterated that members of their sports teams are students first, athletes second.

The American Council on Higher Education also released a statement supporting the ruling (Kelderman, Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/18; Trottman, Wall Street Journal, 8/17).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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