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Monday, August 17, 2015
NLRB declines jurisdiction in Northwestern football case

The  National Labor Relations Board finally ruled on the efforts of Northwestern football players to unionize, declining to exercise jurisdiction without deciding whether college athletes are statutory employees. The Board determined that "it would not promote stability in labor relations" for it to get involved. It emphasized the unique circumstances of the case and the problem of ruling on union efforts by players in one sport at one school. Professional athlete-unions were sport- or league-wide, not team-wide. FBS schools, including all other Big Ten schools, are public and thus not subject to Board jurisdiction, meaning Northwestern (and 16 other FBS schools) might be able to unionize but not any of its competitors. This also would undermine the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference, which member schools formed to create the uniformity and level playing field that a Northwestern-only union would undermine.

At Workplace Prof, Jeff Hirsch briefly discusses the opinion, arguing that the NLRB's conclusion about instability is understandable, but ignores the way that unionization might have pressured the NCAA to make needed changes. I would make that point even more specifically--unionization is the only way to ensure student-athletes have real power in creating new policies for the NCAA, as opposed to being given a voice that can be easily overridden or ignored by other interests. For example, under the proposed revised governance structure for Division I athletics, student-athletes would hold one vote on a 21-person Board of Directors and two votes on a 38-person Council (the legislative body), a body on which 60 % of the Council must be athletics directors. The NLRB identified some changes that have been made since the filing of the petition, perhaps suggesting its  view that things are improving for student-athletes and even a small number of unions is unnecessary to further NLRA policies.

Matt Bodie and I have been waiting for this decision for a year-and-a-half and had planned on writing a short essay on the decision and the underlying normative issues. Given this resolution, I doubt there is much to say.


Instead of unionizing a single sports program at a single school, more systemic change would come comes from lobbying/pressuring/ the NCAA itself to relax its rigid work rules for ALL its student athlete employees.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/17/2015 4:15 PM  

That sounds great in theory. But the NCAA has shown itself immune to pressure. It is about as unpopular an institution as you can imagine and it has had many public officials yelling about it for years. But it has shown no inclination to do more than small, incremental changes. The unionization effort was a response to that--nothing else is working to make the NCAA change, let's try something fairly creative and radical.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 8/21/2015 5:23 PM  

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