Monday, August 17, 2015
Washington, D.C. - - In a unanimous decision, the National Labor Board declined to assert jurisdiction in the case involving Northwestern University football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships. The Board did not determine if the players were statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Instead, the Board exercised its discretion not to assert jurisdiction and dismissed the representation petition filed by the union.
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.
I haven't read the decision yet, but I'll admit that I didn't see this one coming. On its own merits, one can understand the NLRB's conclusion that if it allowed Northwestern scholarship players to unionize, labor stability in all of college football wouldn't be well served. On the other hand, it could prompt much needed changes in college football. Moreover, it's not obvious why all of college football is the issue--one could envision productive collective-bargaining at just Northwestern, even if it was limited in scope. And, of course, on a selfish note, it would've been nice to have the Board speak to the issue of players' status as employees. But the Board has spoken--unanimously, no less, which I think is also important--and that should settle the issue for a while.