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NRLB Rules Northwestern Football Players May Not Unionize


We're tracking a story that had the potential to change college football. The National Labor Relations Board answered a big question about college football, but answered in a small way. The board dismissed an effort to unionize football players at Northwestern University. It says allowing only one school to unionize could destabilize college football. But the board avoided the big question - whether student athletes count as university employees. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: This was definitely a first for the NLRB, which said, in its opinion, unlike graduate assistants or student cafeteria workers, it had never been involved in a case involving college athletes of any kind. It decided that its jurisdiction was questionable. It overturned a ruling by a regional director and dismissed the attempt to unionize Northwestern football players.

RAMOGI HUMA: It chose to hit the snooze button and kind of punt on the issue.

CORLEY: Ramogi Huma is president of the College Athletes Players Association or CAPA. That's the group that sought union status in order to represent Northwestern's football players. University spokesman Al Cubbage says although the NLRB didn't take up the employee issue, Northwestern was pleased with the decision.

AL CUBBAGE: They are students first and foremost.

CORLEY: Northwestern competes in the NCAA's highest college football level with more than 100 other universities. Most of those schools are state schools subject to state labor laws. The NLRB only has jurisdiction over private schools, and it said labor issues involving only one team would make it difficult to maintain any degree of labor stability. Huma says the NLRB left the door open, though, for other schools to unionize.

HUMA: But in the meantime, on a practical matter for the players, they don't have the opportunity to secure the leverage they need to protect themselves.

CORLEY: To get universities to agree, for instance, to pay for treatment of injuries for both current and former athletes. Al Cubbage agrees those are concerns.

CUBBAGE: But we don't think that unionization and collective bargaining are the appropriate methods to address those issues.

CORLEY: Over the past year and a half, some colleges have increased scholarships and medical coverage. Huma called it ironic though that the NLRB noted those reforms.

HUMA: The very reason why they're moving in the first place is because players stood up to assert their labor rights, so - so we're going to keep finding ways to pressure the system. Unionization is just one strategy.

CORLEY: Last year, the Northwestern football players did vote by secret ballot on whether or not to form a union. Those ballots will not be counted. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.