NLRB Denies Northwestern Football Players the Right to Unionize

On August 17, 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) issued a unanimous decision denying Northwestern University football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships the right to unionize. The Board did not address the central question of whether the players should be considered statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), but rather chose to exercise its discretion not to assert jurisdiction and dismissed the players’ representation petition.

The Board held that asserting jurisdiction “would not promote stability in labor relations” within the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Specifically, all but 17 of the 125 football teams are state-run institutions, which are not bound by any Board rulings. As such, the Board reasoned that granting a single team collective bargaining rights could likely disrupt the NCAA’s ability to adequately perform its job.

Employers are urged to remember that this decision is an extremely narrow one–the Board has made it clear that this ruling only applies to the issues surrounding the Northwestern case. The question of whether student-athletes should be considered university employees can still be brought before the Board by student-athletes from other private colleges or universities from across the country.