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Northwestern Football Players Cannot Form a Union
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Northwestern Football players

Summary: While the issue of whether the players are employees was ignored, the NLRB ruled that allowing one union wouldn’t be fair for players at other schools that aren’t unionized.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University’s football players cannot form a union. This ruling overturns a decision from 2014.


The NLRB’s ruling did not address the issue of whether or not the players are employees so there is the potential for another similar case to pop up. Their main argument against unionizing was that it would be unfair for players at other NCAA schools.

The NLRB has jurisdiction over private schools, of which there are only 17 in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision and Northwestern is the only one in the Big Ten Conference. There are a total of 125 football programs in the Subdivision. State labor boards oversee the public institutions. With so few programs to oversee, the NLRB has never worked with college athletes or been asked to certify a single-team unit of any sport before.

Northwestern is happy with the ruling, stating that they view their players as students first, not as employees. Republican senator of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, was disappointed by the way the board left the issue open for future cases to use, “I do not believe Congress, when it wrote the National Labor Relations Act, intended that students – whether they be athletes or graduate assistants – be considered employees of their university.”

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Had the union been allowed to form, it would have dramatically changed the way college sports run. They group wanted guaranteed coverage for sports related medical expenses, sponsorship compensation, a trust fund to help former players finish their education, and an increase in scholarship value.

Many of these demands have been addressed by schools and conferences on their own. The five wealthiest conferences voted to let their schools decide on offering scholarships that cover the cost of attendance, an estimated $3,000 addition. There are 36,000 in that group, bringing the total commitment schools would provide to $108 million. The Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences decided to offer guaranteed four-year scholarships to their athletes.

The Pac-12 will also provide medical coverage to athletes up to four years after graduating that were injured during college competition.




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