NLRB blocks Northwestern football’s unionization attempt in ruling that makes no sense

The National Labor Relations Board dismissed a ruling earlier today that had allowed Northwestern University’s football team to form a union. From the Associated Press:

The decision throws out a March 2014 ruling by a regional NLRB director in Chicago who said that the football players are effectively school employees and entitled to organize. Monday’s decision did not directly address the question of whether football players are employees.

The board’s ruling applies only to private schools like Northwestern. While no similar movement has yet taken place at a public university, that avenue is still available.

The ruling was in large part based on the fact that Northwestern is the only school whose athletes have voted to unionize. As The New York Times explained:

In a conference call with reporters Monday, N.L.R.B. officials explained that the novelty of the case — no other single team in a sports league had come before the Board seeking to unionize — was a factor in its decision that would have wide-ranging consequences for college sports. The board decided that allowing one team to collectively bargain would not promote stability in the labor market and could upset competitive balance in college sports. It could also potentially conflict with the rules set by Northwestern’s conference, the Big Ten, and the N.C.A.A.

On it’s face, the justification for the ruling doesn’t make much sense. You can’t nix the first attempt to unionize within a particular industry just because no one has tried before; someonhas to be first. Additionally, to the board’s claim that having one unionized team would create a competitive imbalance, there’s no reason to believe that’s true, especially (but not necessarily) if Northwestern’s unionization encourages other teams to follow suit. There are plenty of private companies who are unionized despite their competitors being non-union; one need only look to the recent spate of unionization movements — or lack thereof — at media companies such as Gawker, Salon (union) and Buzzfeed (non-union) to see how the labor market handles those kinds of asymmetries.

What’s more, conflicts with NCAA rules that assume athletes aren’t employees as an argument against unionization is perfectly circular reasoning. In making that argument, the NLRB has effectively said that athletes aren’t employees because the NCAA says they aren’t employees, regardless as to the actual work they’re doing, ignoring the possibility that the NCAA’s rules are wrong in the first place.

This line of reasoning allowed the NLRB to claim to be agnostic as to the underlying question of whether college athletes are employees, but you can only arrive at the ruling the NLRB did if you assume that they aren’t. And by the NLRB’s own standards of what constitutes an employee, athletes would seem to qualify. As the Times continued:

Peter Ohr, a regional director of the N.L.R.B. in Chicago, ruled last year that players on scholarship were employees based on the number of hours they spent each week on football, the strict rules set by coaches and the financial aid they received as payment. Northwestern football players — 76 were eligible — voted whether to certify the union last April, but the votes were impounded pending a ruling by the full N.L.R.B. Now that the Board has ruled in favor of Northwestern, the ballots will not be counted.

Northwestern football, via Wikimedia Commons

Northwestern football, via Wikimedia Commons

When the NCAA insists on classifying these players as student-athletes, while universities treat them as athlete-students, they can do real harm to players. Injuries can lead to scholarships being voided without workers’ comp. Athletes have faced NCAA rules violations for accepting food from their coaches, even when their meal plans didn’t cover three meals a day, because the food constituted payment. Athletes whose likenesses are represented — down to their correct eye color — in video games are entitled to precisely zero compensation, the subject of a class action lawsuit currently underway.

These athletes generate vast sums of money for their schools and the NCAA, with a quantifiable market value. To treat them as as anything other than employees — especially in the big-money sports such as basketball and football — is nothing more than rationalizing exploitation.

The ruling comes at a time when support for collective bargaining rights is rising and actual collective bargaining rights are eroding. While today’s ruling far from settled the issue of unionization in college athletics, it represents a major setback.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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8 Responses to “NLRB blocks Northwestern football’s unionization attempt in ruling that makes no sense”

  1. brewball says:

    The mistake we have made in this country is to monetize athletic ability rather than intelligence and the accomplishments that result from intelligence combined with hard work. What we have now is a system that rewards “student” athletes, many of whom should not be anywhere near a university campus. We are fighting for the wrong things. It is a systematic problem and the answer is not to further the destruction of the primary purpose of the university by monetizing sports on campus. What we should be fighting for is a fundamental change in how we treat those that represent the best of what a university can produce (intellectual ability combined with motivation) rather than kids who are good at throwing a ball or running fast.

  2. DoverBill says:

    Chalk up another win up for those that already have.

  3. Randy Riddle says:

    Universities are fighting hard on this one. If student athletes are declared employees and allowed to unionize, it will open up another very ugly can of worms – graduate students that are teaching heavy loads and not being compensated for it because it’s “training”. And don’t get me started on how universities abuse adjunct faculty to keep undergrad education afloat.

  4. caphillprof says:

    This is all embarrassing nonsense. The law does not permit whole industries to opt out of organized labor; nor is the law concerned with competition within any industry. Union shops and non-union shops coexist in many, many industries.

  5. Knottwhole says:

    It’s capitalism at its finest.
    The power shares nothing with the generator.

  6. Skye Winspur says:

    It seems to me that it always comes down to a question of who does “real work” and who doesn’t. The rate of injury and the problem of balancing football’s demands with studying should be clear indications that these are real workers, not much unlike actors or security guards. Yes, the players should persist. Unions aren’t just for people on GM and Ford assembly lines.

  7. Indigo says:

    Unionism isn’t going to back off over one foolish ruling. I hope the players have the good sense to persist. This is a real cause, a good cause, and one that can work out over a few years. It won’t happen all at once but the fact that the NLRB couldn’t come up with more of an excuse than the only-one argument is a clear signal that they haven’t got a plan, let alone an excuse. Try again, union guys! Get two teams on the slate, maybe more. Then let the Neckties stew.

  8. BeccaM says:

    It’s exploitation, pure and simple.

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