On Monday, the National Labor Relations Board declined to assert jurisdiction in the case of Northwestern University football players attempting to unionize, effectively reversing the decision reached last March by a Chicago court, which had stated that the players were University employees. The verdict was reached via a unanimous decision, and cannot be appealed by the players. In a 16-page summary, the board stated that granting the players’ petition would “not promote uniformity and stability in labor relations.” The board went on to say that the ability of Northwestern’s players to form a union would alter the “competitive practice” due to other teams having a different set of rules, without the ability to collectively bargain.

Per a report from Bloomberg.com:

Among the board’s findings in a unanimous 16-page opinion was that certifying the players’ petition “would not promote uniformity and stability in labor relations,” and that allowing Northwestern players to bargain with a single employer over policies that apply throughout the National Collegiate Athletic Association would potentially upset the balance of competition.

In what NLRB officials called a “very narrow decision,” the board declined to address whether the players are employees at Northwestern and ruled rather on whether granting their petition would serve the purposes of the National Labor Relations Act. Of the 125 football programs in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the top echelon, just 17 are private schools and Northwestern is the only one in the Big Ten Conference.

The NLRB ultimately did not answer whether or not the players are university employees, while saying that giving one team the ability to collectively bargain would present a conflict with the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference. Instead of backing or reversing the decision, the board decided not to take charge of the case and dismissed the representation petition filed by the College Athletes Players Association, which had worked with then-quarterback Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team.

The NLRB said in their summary:

“In the decision, the Board held that asserting jurisdiction would not promote labor stability due to the nature and structure of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)….By statute the Board does not have jurisdiction over state-run colleges and universities, which constitute 108 of the roughly 125 FBS teams.

“In addition, every school in the Big Ten, except Northwestern, is a state-run institution. As the NCAA and conference maintain substantial control over individual teams, the Board held that asserting jurisdiction over a single team would not promote stability in labor relations across the league.

“This decision is narrowly focused to apply only to the players in this case and does not preclude reconsideration of this issue in the future.”

While this verdict is an obvious win for the Northwestern administrators and the NCAA, the last statement serves as a silver lining to college athletes, as the ruling will not preclude other schools from attempting to unionize at a later date. For the Northwestern students however, their fight, which helped invigorate the debate as to whether student athletes should be paid, has ended in defeat.

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