The National Labor Relations Board declined Monday to rule on a petition by Northwestern University football players who sought to form the United States’ first union for college athletes. The petition’s dismissal overturned a previous decision by the local NLRB district in Chicago, which ruled in March 2014 that the school’s football players were university employees with the right to unionize.
The NLRB did not issue a decision on whether Northwestern football players are school employees. Instead, the organization’s board members decided not to rule on a petition that would affect public institutions. The NLRB has jurisdiction over private institutions such as Northwestern, but the vast majority of football programs in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) are public schools. Northwestern football players cannot appeal the decision, the New York Times reported.
Board members determined a ruling on the petition would not “promote uniformity and stability” in ongoing labor relations, Bloomberg reported. The NLRB also expressed concern that a ruling would affect competitive balance in college football, since the right to unionize on an individual basis would allow Northwestern’s football program to offer recruits benefits that other schools could not, such as salaries and practice standards. The NCAA’s FBS earned $1.4 billion in profit in its most recent fiscal year.
The NLRB’s decision was a surprise reversal after Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of the NLRB in Chicago, ruled Northwestern’s football players could unionize because their performance had a direct effect on their scholarships. At the time, members of Northwestern’s football program voted on whether to exercise their right to unionize, with ballots kept sealed until the national NLRB could hear the case. Those ballots will now be destroyed, though it was rumored that football players had voted down the measure, ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported.
George Atallah, the NFL Players’ Association’s assistant executive director of external affairs, condemned the NLRB’s decision via Twitter on Monday.
If employees can't turn to the NLRB, where can they turn? What's the point? #Northwestern
— George Atallah (@GeorgeAtallah) August 17, 2015
The NLRB’s filing on the Northwest football players’ petition can be viewed in its entirety below.