Labor board punts college athletes’ try to unionize on technicality

EVANSTON, Ill. (PAI) – By a 5-0 vote, the National Labor Relations Board on August 17 tossed out college athletes’ – in this case, Northwestern University’s football players’ – attempt to unionize.

Its ruling disappointed both the union organizers, who had won overwhelmingly in a vote among the players, and the Steelworkers, which backed them, while cheering right wing lawmakers. But the leader of the players’ union, noting the board dismissed the case for technical reasons, vowed to continue the fight. The NLRB, he said, “punted” the issue.

The Northwestern players’ campaign to unionize was important because, among other things, it exposed the exploitation of college athletes in the major men’s sports, football and basketball. Testimony in the Northwestern case showed the two sports are highly profitable, but that the players are barred from negotiating for a share of those profits.

It also showed coaches have virtual total control over wages – scholarships and other financial aid or lack of it – and working conditions, including the players’ class schedules, availability of medical care for injuries, accommodations and training schedules, as well as the games themselves.

All those factors had led the NLRB Chicago Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr to rule just over a year ago that Northwestern’s football players were “employees” under labor law, and organizable. The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) had won the vote among the Northwestern players. The board tossed out his decision.

Letting the players organize “would not promote stability in labor relations,” the NLRB ruled, and that’s a key objective of the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The lack of stability, the NLRB said, comes from a lack of uniformity in top-level college football, where Northwestern is one of only 17 private universities, compared to 108 state-sponsored schools.

Otherwise, top-level college football, “does resemble a professional sport in a number of relevant ways,” including making money for the colleges, the NLRB said. “In other contexts, the board’s assertion of jurisdiction helps promote uniformity and stability, but in this case, asserting jurisdiction would not have that effect.”

“While we are disappointed, the USW remains as committed as ever to the idea that scholarship athletes deserve the same rights and protections afforded to other Americans,” said Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, whose union funded CAPA. “We will not stop fighting until athletes secure the basic protections they so desperately need.”

Eventually, he added, college athletes will win the right to collectively bargain. “Maybe it won’t happen in 2015. But before today’s athletes send their children to college, every college scholarship football player and every college scholarship basketball player will be a proud union member and no longer exploited on their jobs.”

After his statement about the NLRB’s punt, CAPA President Ramogi Huma added: “This is not a loss, but it is a loss of time. It delays players securing the leverage they need to protect themselves from traumatic brain injury, sports-related medical expenses, and other gaps in protections.”

And both noted that the publicity over the Northwestern case, as well as a case involving college basketball players, forced changes in college athletics that are already benefiting the players in those two sports. They include larger stipends, increased medical attention – especially for football-caused concussions – and, in some cases, guaranteed scholarships.

Photo: Illinois and Northwestern players line up at the line of scrimmage prior to the snap of the football during a NCAA Football game between the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston, Illinois on November 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Scott Boehm)                                               



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.